Pulling No Punches

Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson

edited by Tim Page, edited by Vanessa Weeks Page
Summit Books, 413 pp., $24.95

Virgil Thompson
Virgil Thompson; drawing by David Levine

No writer has contributed more toward the sophistication of musical life in the United States than Virgil Thomson, whose incumbency as music critic of the New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and 1954 defines the brief Age of Enlightenment in American music journalism. Though the whole of this anthology of his correspondence adds cubits to his reputation as critic, moralist, and—no less substantially—entertaining gossip, the most valuable section is the long chapter representing his newspaperman years. While supporting such originals as Webern (“spun steel”), Varèse, and Carl Ruggles, and attacking the Beaux Arts provincialism, the managerial manipulation, and the misguided patronage systems controlling New York’s musical institutions, Thomson generated an excitement difficult even to imagine in today’s game of on-the-run, promotion-style reviewing.

The first and regrettably the shortest part of the book opens with “Tommie” Thomson writing to his sister from army boot camp in Oklahoma in September 1917; and writing uncommonly well (“The mountains to the west are beautiful, just freckled with trees”). After the war, spent stateside, and two years as a music student at Harvard, he toured Europe with the college Glee Club in the summer of 1921, then stayed on in Paris for a year to continue his musical education with Nadia Boulanger.

Life in the French capital changed him, of course, for though he had brought his intelligence with him, the crucial artistic experiences of the time were not available in Boston and New York. Ulysses, which he described only two months after its publication as “amazing. Style and matter,” would be banned there for eleven years, and Pierrot Lunaire, the “Real musical event…. Fascinating concurrence of noises,” had still not been performed in America a decade after its première.

Nor would Thomson’s talents as a critic have had much opportunity for exposure back home, whereas his reports on the Parisian musical scene for the Boston Transcript, singling out “a Russian conductor” who “is giving magnificent concerts”—“Paris is full of Russian refugees…. The French have finesse, but thank God for the Russians with real ecstasy in their souls”—helped to bring Koussevitzky to the advertence of Back Bay and hence contributed in some measure to his engagement by the Boston Symphony Orchestra soon after. Returning to and matriculating at Harvard, then living for a time in New York, Thomson moved to Paris again in 1925, this time to remain there, apart from side-tripping (including four months in the United States in 1928–1929), until June 6 (!), 1940.

The letters of Part Two add a new feature to the landscape of American expatriate literature, a high and distinctively shaped hill if not an alp. Thomson keeps friends informed of each other’s comings and goings (“Eugene consorts with princesses in Marseille and sailors in Toulon”), and of his own life a la mode, which included “dancing till two at Le Boeuf sur le toit” and perhaps longer than that…

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