Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle provides important amplifications and sortings-out of fact and fiction in Thomson’s own and other versions of his life. His own remains the best-written life of an American musician,1 but Anthony Tommasini’s ranks not far below it in that regard and has the advantage of being more truthful. His fluent, easy-going style, free of fustian, thickets, ponderosities, is indebted to Thomson’s as well as to Thomson’s personal tutoring. Much of the material is familiar—the Missouri Baptist background, the discovery of intellectual and musical precocity, the Harvard years, life in l’entre deux guerres Paris—but a surprising amount is new and revelatory. It will subtract several cubits from Thomson’s stature as a man.
Thanks to “exclusive full access” to Virgil Thomson’s papers at Yale, and to some that he withheld, including intimate letters and a receipt from a Brooklyn bail bondsman, the book is “the first full-scale account of Thomson’s experiences as a composer, influential critic, and gay man.” Thomson himself was silent concerning the last of these categories, and the fact of it, though too obvious to be closetable, has not heretofore been brought into the open with both frankness and an index of sexual partners, which, though shorter than Leporello’s, seems to have been on the way to catching up. Increasingly, “Virgil attracted a coterie of young gay male friends,” Tommasini tells us, adding that “star-struck students, including quite a few handsome gay men, sat at his feet….” Not the least valuable aspect of the new biography is its contribution to sexual sociology and the understanding of changing mores during Thomson’s long life (1896-1989).
The story of his brief incarceration after a 1942 police raid on an all-male bordello operated by one Gustave Beekman near the Brooklyn Navy Yard is upsetting to read and must have been frightening to experience. How long and how frequently he had patronized the establishment is apparently not known, but the New York Herald Tribune, in the person of Geoffrey Parsons, Thomson’s employer as well as the paper’s chief editorial writer and “overseer of all things cultural,” managed to arrange for his release and to keep a lid on his involvement in the scandal. The truth circulated privately at the Tribune, and a bit beyond, but with the exception of a remark in the Daily Mirror by Walter Winchell to the effect that one of the big fish in the police net was an unnamed musician who has “many gunning for him” reached neither the tabloids nor the extortionists.
The success of the cover-up was due in part to Beekman’s identification of a more prominent client, the senior senator from Massachusetts, David Walsh, and a press campaign to expose him that deflected attention from the mystery musician. Alben Barkley, the Senate majority leader and future vice president, and J. Edgar Hoover, “who, we now know, understood what it meant to be homosexual,” quickly quashed the charges against the senator, but Beekman, with no powerful friends, spent twenty years in Sing-Sing on a single charge of sodomy, the savage penalty of the period.2
Thomson was unnerved again some years later when Jerome D. Bohm, one of his assistants at the Tribune, served a prison term for pederasty, after a teenage boy, “questioned… about some abrasions around his anus” during a routine examination by his doctor, gave a lurid account of “goings-on” in Bohm’s weekend Connecticut household. Perhaps understandably, if cravenly, Thomson turned down Bohm’s plea to appear as a character witness at his trial, as well as, two years later, his petition for reinstatement in his job at the Tribune.
As one might have anticipated, the best of the book is in the chapter on Thomson’s heyday as chief music critic of the Tribune (1940-1954). A mutual friend wrote to Gertrude Stein to tell her the news: “Dear Baby Woojums [Alice B. Toklas was “Mama Woojums”],…Virgil is the music critic of the N.Y. Herald-Tribune and has made a sensation.” In fact, his wit, debonair tone, and anti-establishment point of view were soon revolutionizing the music world. He took on the entrenched powers of the day, among them Olin Downes, the stodgy music critic of the rival New York Times, the voice of the majority; Columbia Concerts, the largest artists’ agency in the country; the Metropolitan Opera; and the reigning maestro, Arturo Toscanini, who, Thomson wrote, reduced the mighty second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to a “barcarole.”
Here are some excerpts from Thomson’s debut review (October 11, 1940):
The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York opened its ninety-ninth season last evening in Carnegie Hall. There was little that could be called festive about the occasion. The menu was routine, the playing ditto.
Beethoven’s overture to “Egmont” is a classic hors d’oeuvre. Nobody’s digestion was ever spoiled by it and no latecomer has ever lost much by missing it. It was preceded, as is the custom nowadays, by our National Anthem, gulped down standing, like a cocktail…. [The somberness of last night’s version] is due, I think, to an attempt to express authority through mere weighty blowing and sawing in the middle and lower ranges of the various orchestral instruments, rather than by the more classical method of placing every instrument in its most brilliant and grateful register in order to achieve the maximum of carrying power and of richness….
…Twenty years residence on the European continent has largely spared me Sibelius. Last night’s Second Symphony was my first in quite some years. I found it vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description. I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I’ve never met one among educated professional musicians.
…The concert, as a whole… was anything but a memorable experience. The music itself was soggy, the playing dull and brutal. As a friend remarked…”I understand now why the Philharmonic is not part of New York’s intellectual life.”
Geoffrey Parsons’s memo to Thomson on his review keeps pace with the celerity of his protégé’s mental movements, and it is a pity that Tommasini has not told us more about this perceptive editor who had foresightedly chosen Thomson in the first place, realizing that he could be a boon to the paper:
The Sibelius paragraph was the one considerable blunder…. You …committed the one cardinal sin of criticism, that of appearing to condescend. When you cited the opinion of “musically educated” people, you made every illiterate and amateur who disagreed with you simply snort…. “What the hell, the experts have always been wrong…. Provincial is Sibelius? Well, then, that’s what I like.” …A cult is a cult and must be approached patiently and calmly—the way you would a nervous horse….
Parsons does not challenge, as he should have, the statement that to miss Egmont is no great loss, or say that Downes, as New York’s most prominent music critic and an ardent Sibelius champion, is too overtly Thomson’s target. But to judge from his deletion in the galleys of an offensive remark about the “undistinguished audience,” one supposes that he saw through Thomson’s opportunistic intent to shock, and at the same time realized that not since G.B. Shaw had anyone written about music with such directness, daring, and intelligence.
The next day Thomson reviewed the opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its home city. He expressed reservations about Koussevitzky’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, and about the program: “The first two movements of A London Symphony [Vaughan Williams’s] are long and episodic, disjointed….” This time Parsons was delighted: “Peaches and cream from every point of view…. You struck exactly the right note…of wise, modest, generous, urbane, constructive comment.” Of the Beethoven, Thomson observed that:
At the back of every conductor’s mind is a desire to make his orchestra produce a louder noise than any one else’s orchestra can produce, a really majestic noise, a Niagara Falls of sound…. You can tell when it is coming by the way he goes into a brief convulsion at that point. The convulsion is useful to the conductor because it prevents his hearing what the orchestra really sounds like while his fit is on….
Performances of Thomson’s music increased in tandem with the growth of his influence as a critic but decreased abruptly when he left the newspaper. This surprised no one except Thomson himself, Tommasini says, which indicates that the shrewdest observer of The Musical Scene, as his now-classic survey is titled, failed to see that the impresarios, conductors, and performers who had programmed his music feared his power as a critic but had a low opinion of his composing talent. In fact the literature about his music is undistinguished. His advocates rely on nebulous, impressionistic descriptions, in the main. Tommasini himself, who plainly loves it—the “serenely beautiful” Stabat Mater, the “poignant grandeur” of the Oraison funèbre—does not discuss it in a musically enlightening way. To characterize the Piano Sonata no. 2 as a “beguiling mix of resignation and whimsy” conveys a sensitiveness to moods, perhaps, but nothing about musical substance. Similarly, to be told that the “Handelian andante” of the Violin Sonata “grows shockingly intense” is unhelpful. (Intense in what ways, and why shockingly?) And when a technical matter is touched upon, the results undermine the reader’s confidence. What, for example, are “parallel chords of stacked-up tritones,” since the tritone on top of a tritone is the inversion of itself?
A New York Times review of the present book asserted that Thomson is “not a great composer…but he certainly is the composer of two great operas.” One or the other statement is of course invalidated by the syllogistic squeeze, but in any case what makes the operas “great” is not divulged. The first of them, Four Saints in Three Acts, has no plot, no real characters in any recognizable sense, and no emotion, unless the pre-curtain discussion to Act IV of whether there should be a fourth act is considered suspenseful. Two Teresas of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola, the principal saints in Gertrude Stein’s libretto, repeat children’s rhymes, random remarks, word games, and ask questions. One of the latter, “Can women have wishes?,” hints at Stein’s feminism, and, by hindsight, the subject of her second Thomson libretto, The Mother of Us All (Susan B. Anthony), a cavalcade of nineteenth-century Americana. The diatonic and harmonically rudimentary music of Four Saints, whether faux-naïf or the real kind, is a patchwork of waltzes, marches, hymns, quotations (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Save the King”) connected, or disconnected, by singsong recitative and chant.
Tommasini exposes some of the less attractive aspects of Thomson’s personality as they became manifest during the long struggle (from 1927) to bring the opera to the stage. Charming with prospective backers, and uncharacteristically restrained in his tussle with “Baby Woojums” over money—“We want to sell the damn thing,” she wrote, “and we got to have the reclame…believe me it is not for anything xcept selling…”—Thomson was “surly and short-tempered with everyone else.” Tommasini does not shirk such epithets as bitchy, bossy, bullying, imperious, but stronger ones—contumelious, monstrously egotistical—are needed for Thomson’s treatment of Beatrice Wayne Godfrey, the St. Teresa in the first production. A performance of the opera had been organized in honor of Thomson’s ninetieth birthday, and members of his entourage had thoughtfully arranged for the wheelchair-confined eighty-two-year-old lady to attend. When he got wind of this plan, Thomson flew into paroxysms of rage, refused to have the “old fat black lady” there, and sent one of his minions to inform her. She later told Tommasini that “he didn’t want to share the attention with me…. That’s Virgil. He is so afraid somebody will take something from him.”
Thomson’s interest in the “homosexual subculture of Harlem,” where “men could find men to have sex with,” led to his decision to cast Four Saints “entirely with Negro singers.” This inspiration appalled “Baby Woojums”—“I do not care for the idea of showing the negro bodies”—but one of his letters intended to change her mind exposes his, and the period’s, condescension and plantationism: “Negroes objectify themselves very easily, and I think the explanation is all part of the ‘threshold of consciousness’ idea—they live on the surface of their consciousness.” No doubt such views echo inherited and regional ones, Thomson’s ancestors having taken sixty of their slaves with them in the move from Virginia to Missouri in the 1830s. They had intended to settle in Illinois but kept going when they learned that slavery would soon become illegal there.
The behavior of Thomson and his collaborators, John Houseman, the director, and Frederick Ashton, the choreographer, in speaking French in front of the all-black cast when not wanting to be understood, is unconscionable. Ashton, moreover, “campy and flamboyant,” had himself photographed with three naked young male dancers in a pose intended to mean, as Tommasini interprets it, “How I love and care for these beautiful, simple black boys.” Thomson later recalled that by the time the show closed on Broadway, the choreographer had “slept with two or three of them. They were pretty as hell, you know.”
The book’s account of Thomson’s third, last, and least successful opera, Lord Byron, gives the impression that the failure must be attributed in part to the composer’s natural peevishness and his attempt to control every detail of the production. Tommasini describes a rehearsal during which “Byron” and three beaux idéals fellow poets were trying out their tight-fitting nineteenth-century breeches: Thomson “bounded toward the stage, pointed at their crotches, and shouted: ‘Everybody hang to the left, hang to the left’…. [The men] attempted to arrange their bulges in some semblance of conformity.” But Byron does have characters, intelligible situations, and traditional operatic forms—arias, duets, choruses, and ensembles. The music is said to reflect English, Irish, and Scottish ballads, but to some listeners they sound more like Missouri parlor pieces. The opera fails because its dramatic purpose is unclear and because the music strives for passion but never achieves it. The quoted excerpts, changing with the geography, include “Auld Lang Syne” and “London Bridge is falling down.”
Composer on the Aisle relates for the first time the origins of the fifty-year friction between Thomson and Roger Sessions, a “personal enemy” who debunked the notion of an American school, “advocated rigorous international standards,” and represented “the modernism of complexity,” as Thomson himself did the “modernism of simplicity.” By mid-century, the validity of the “dissonance-saturated international style” was no longer contested, Tommasini tells us, but “the public wasn’t exactly buying it either.” (And still isn’t, he might have added.) Misreading the portents, Thomson predicted that “Our century’s second half…will certainly witness the fusion of all the major modern devices into a new classical style….” In reality, the faceless international kind prevailed until the time of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1975).
The personal animus between Thomson and Sessions was fueled by the latter’s devastating review in Modern Music of Thomson’s Sonate d’Eglise at its premiere in Paris in May 1926, and by Thomson’s discovery that Sessions had pressured the composer-critic Theodore Chanler into reviewing Four Saints negatively. A letter from Chanler to Thomson’s biographer, Kathleen Hoover, explains that Sessions “was five years my senior, and I was very much under the spell of his remarkable mind….” The hostility on Sessions’s side is attributable to a 1947 Thomson review trashing his compositions as “learned, laborious, complex, and withal not strikingly original. They pass for professor’s music….” But it must also be said that the two were antipodal in almost all regards except their deprecation of Nadia Boulanger.
Both men lived in Europe during the rise of Nazism. But while events in Germany alarmed Sessions, Thomson never mentions them and in fact fled from Paris to Lisbon and New York only in July 1940, after the invasion of France. His friend Sherry Mangan had “lectured [him] fruitlessly about the oppression of Jews, the scourge of fascism, the plight of the smaller countries Hitler was vanquishing,…[but] he found Virgil shockingly detached.” Thomson’s “social attitudes” were “essentially conservative,” Tommasini says, and in the 1950s when Copland was being hounded because of his “leftist” politics, and his Lincoln Portrait was banned by the Eisenhower inauguration committee, Thomson, almost alone among prominent spokespeople for the arts, did not speak up in his defense.
Tommasini throws fresh light on Thomson’s relations with Copland, partly by reprinting the beginning of Thomson’s early (1932) Modern Music essay on his principal rival:
Aaron Copland’s music is American in rhythm, Jewish in melody, eclectic in all the rest.
The subject matter is limited but deeply felt. Its emotional origin is seldom gay, rarely amorous, almost invariably religious. Occasionally excitation of a purely nervous and cerebral kind is the origin of a scherzo [which led to] jazz-experiment. That has been his one wild oat. It was not a very fertile one.
But Thomson was more harshly critical of Copland in their correspondence, as a letter on reading Copland’s What to Listen for in Music shows:
Your book…I…find…a bore. [It] contains a lot of stuff that I don’t believe and that I am not at all convinced you believe…. It…remains to be proved that analytic listening is possible even. God knows professional musicians find it difficult enough. I suspect that persons of weak auditive memory do just as well to let themselves follow the emotional line of a piece…which they certainly can’t do very well while trying to analyze a piece tonally…. I do not believe…that the loose and varied sonata form practiced by the great Viennese has very much relationship to the modern French reconstructed form…. You know privately that it is the most controversial matter in all music…. I find it a little dull of you and a little unctuous to smooth all that over with what I consider falsehoods.
Copland’s response begins with: “Dear Virgil, It was lots of fun to get that long letter from you….”
In the fall of 1981, Composers’ Showcase, a concert society formed by the Gershwin biographer Charles Schwartz, presented Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat in the Whitney Museum, with Thomson reading the part of the Devil, Sessions and Copland those of the Soldier and the Narrator. “For this historic occasion,” Tommasini notes, the two unreconciled eighty-five-year-olds “behaved with civility.” Of course they would on stage, but as the conductor of the piece, the present writer can testify that the atmosphere during the rehearsals was icy. On the first day, the soft-spoken Sessions and the deaf and stentorian Thomson shook hands and reminded each other of their last meeting, which turned out to have been embarrassingly long before. Copland, on good terms with both, arrived a few moments late, but in time to help organize their positioning for a Times photograph. Copland, at eighty-one and struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, read his lines but spoke to his colleagues only to ask, “Did I just say that?” Thomson stage-directed, revised the script (which needed it), and decreed that at the performance he should stand closest to the audience, Copland in the middle, Sessions somewhere in the interior.
Why, one wonders, did the trio consent to appear in an event marking the tenth anniversary of Stravinsky’s death? Surely the answer is that Copland and Sessions wholeheartedly wished to pay homage to him. Both had known him since the 1920s, Copland in New York and Hollywood, Sessions in his late Princeton period and after that in New York, where he visited him at each opportunity and, incidentally, was able to converse with him in Russian. Thomson, who knew Stravinsky at least as well, but did not venerate him—he always referred to Sacre as “that pretty little piece”—doubtless accepted the invitation for the very different reason that the occasion signified recognition of him as one of America’s most distinguished living composers. Whereas the other two were inveterately established as such, most people must have thought of Thomson, especially in his years “on the aisle,” as a critic primarily. He knew, of course, that his writings would last, but the accolade he coveted was that of composer.
Thomson and Copland could not have been more congenial to each other and to me when I became the third member of their Pulitzer Prize panel for the outstanding original composition of 1970. The deliberations, such as they were, took place in Thomson’s digs at the Chelsea Hotel in March 1971, by which time the entries had been winnowed from perhaps two hundred to about twenty-five. These were heard on tapes, or judged, chiefly, from qualities of craftsmanship in scores. The final choice was widely reputed to depend less on merit than on personal predilections, which Copland’s introductory declaration, “I am a Del Tredici man,” confirmed. But, unlike Thomson, who had done no homework, Copland had at least examined some of the manuscripts. Taking charge, Thomson proposed to exclude from consideration all graphic notation, verbal instructions for musical “happenings,” indeterminacy (the performer choosing which segments of a work he or she will play and in what order), and electronic pieces, which he called “Engineering music: I’ve heard nothing of any interest in two decades of listening.” We concurred, but compromised in allowing a genre of interplay between electronic and live.
While admitting the absurdity of trying to compare a cantata and a skiffle trio for washboard, bassoon, and guitar, we nevertheless proceeded to sample the tapes. Thomson napped through most of them but awakened periodically to endorse our opinions, exclaiming after the first resoundingly negative ones, “Another redskin bites the dust” and “Got the varmint.” An anti-Perspectives of New Music bias became apparent when Copland proposed that two Milton Babbitt string quartets be interchanged in the middles of movements, presumably to prove that the pieces were indistinguishable. “Virge,” as Copland called him, thought this a jolly idea, but dozed off during the first experiment.
A mortified Copland, on the ride back uptown, promised a more professional session on the morrow. But it was much the same. Moreover, Thomson kept niggling me to review his newly published American Music Since 1910. This was out of the question largely because of his comments, some of them unintelligible, on many of the 106 composers whose biographies fill a large part of the book: Irving Fine’s music “seems to remember without really resembling it the music of Henri Sauguet”; Foss’s is “more accomplished than convincing”; Dai-Key Lee’s “lacks charm and intellectual distinction [and] I frankly do not quite know how to place it.” (Then why is he one of the 106?) The longest biography, furthermore, is Thomson’s own (86 lines to 19 for Gershwin), even though he has a chapter to himself, the only one with examples in music type, in the first part of the book. Worse still, the erratically chosen 106 include several non-Americans, as well as such oddities as the opera-composing bank president Avery Claplin, while leaving out Scott Joplin, an immortal.
Tommasini clears up the hitherto confusing relationship between Thomson and John Cage. In a 1945 Tribune interview, Thomson had acclaimed the younger composer as the colossus of the age—“genius as a musician…sophistication unmatched…original expression of the very highest poetic quality.” This was at the expense of Schoenberg, which infuriated Roger Sessions, yet Thomson’s criticism of Schoenberg, so far as it goes, is irrefutable:
The constricting element in atonal writing…is the necessity of taking care to avoid making classical harmony with a standardized palette of instrumental sounds and pitches that exists primarily for the purpose of producing such harmony…. Cage has been free to develop the rhythmic element of composition which is the weakest element in the Schoenbergian style….
In 1949 Thomson invited Cage to write his biography. He accepted but was unhappy with Thomson’s editing of his prose, and soon objected strongly to the doctoring of his “unfriendly,” as Thomson thought, musical analyses. The project came to nothing, but in 1955 Thomson approached him again, without revealing, however, that he had already assigned the purely biographical part of the book to Kathleen Hoover, and that the musical part, in which Cage had no interest, had been relegated to him. When Cage delivered his 167-page typescript, in March 1956, Thomson pretended to be pleased with it, “overall,” but added that of course it “would have to be completely changed.” Meanwhile, Hoover and Cage had met and discovered that they strongly disliked each other. Nevertheless, a book jointly under their names, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music, was finally published (1959), not to wide acknowledgment or the approbation of its subject.
Thomson struck back years later in a New York Review essay3 ostensibly on four of Cage’s books, including the one about himself written with Hoover. Much of this breathtakingly brilliant piece is devoted to Cage’s mammoth collage of noises, HPSCHD (1967), from which Thomson concluded,
The ultimate aim was to produce a homogenized chaos that would carry no program, no plot, no reminders of the history of beauty, and no personal statement…. Cage wanted [to remove] all identifiable structure and rhetoric.
Cage was flitting from one inane extreme, the serialization of every element, pitches, lengths, dynamics, timbres, modes of attack—which removed all freedom from composition—to another, its apparent opposite, aleatory, or indeterminacy, which would make music completely free, “an achievement he was especially pleased with because it eliminated from any piece both the history of music and the personality of the composer.” Cage himself described his composing at this time as “an activity characterized by process and essentially purposeless.”
Cage, Thomson notes, “prizes innovation above all other qualities—a weighting of the values which gives to all his judgments an authoritarian, almost a commercial aspect, as of a one-way tunnel leading only to the gadget-fair.” Composers generally “have considered the history of music as leading up to them,” Thomson goes on. “But Cage has no such view. He thinks of himself, on the contrary…as a prophet denouncing the whole of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe, with its incorrigible respect for beauty and distinction, and dissolving all that in an ocean of electronic availabilities.”
Thomson then comes in for the kill:
The truth is that Cage’s mind is narrow. Were it broader his remarks might carry less weight. And his music might not exist at all. For with him the original gift, the musical ear, is not a remarkable one…. A lack of urgency has been characteristic of Cage’s music from the beginning…. Whenever I have played his recorded works for students I have found that no matter what their length they exhaust themselves in about two minutes, say four at the most. By that time we have all got the sound of it…. And there is no need for going on with it, since we know that it will not be going any deeper into an emotion already depicted as static. Nor will it be following nature’s way by developing an organic structure. For if the mind that created it, though powerful and sometimes original, is nevertheless a narrow one, the music itself, for all its jollity, liveliness, and good humor, is emotionally shallow.
Like Thomson, Tommasini favors a vernacular vocabulary. The elderly Thomson’s “tummy” is enormous, while other things and people are “wacky,” “hokey,” “fuss-budgety,” “snazzy,” “sassy,” “comfy.” But “savvy” and “sweeping,” the redundant modifier for Thomson’s innumerable “generalizations,” are overworked. The author of The Sheltering Sky is referred to at one place as “Paul Bowels,” and his estranged wife, Jane, is said to have died in Tangier, instead of the convent hospital in Málaga where she lived for years and near which, in the cemetery of San Miguel, she is buried. Some confusion exists between 1956 and 1957. In Venice, in the summer of 1957, Thomson’s friend Roger Baker is said to have made an appointment with “a handsome young painter” to see some (non-existent) “Caravaggio murals” (the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, perhaps, but they are canvases), and in “Venice that summer,” the ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq was “struck down by polio.” In fact this tragedy occurred the year before, in 1956. Baker was vaccinated for polio by “a young doctor” who had just “started a private practice” (actually some years earlier), and in consequence was “bedridden and paralyzed…. The doctor had used a contaminated vaccine…. Tens of thousands of people were mistakenly given this compromised virus.” (Wasn’t the vaccine, not the virus compromised?) But no matter, the narrative is smooth and the book is indispensable to anyone concerned with American cultural history of the period.
Showing a new secretary around his apartment, Thomson, in his ninetieth year, instructed him: “This is what you do if you show up and I’m dead. Don’t call a doctor; it will be too late. Call the lawyer. He knows what to do. Then call the locksmith to come change the locks. Then call AP, UPI, and the New York Times—the culture desk, not the obit boys.””Do you want to be buried or cremated?” his friend Dick Flender had asked one day. “Cremated,” Virgil said. “Easier to ship.”
Thomson’s own blurb for the dust-jacket of his 1966 memoirs is unstinting in its self-praise, but not misleading:
Salty, witty, warm, and beautifully written…they tell of a Kansas City childhood, a Harvard education, a Missourian’s adventures in Boston, New York, and Paris…. Penetrating, powerful, and quirky, the book shows Virgil Thomson not only as an international gadfly stinging where he pleases but also as one who was certain to leave an indelible mark on the times that he so vividly recounts.
September 25, 1997
Virgil Thomson, Virgil Thomson (Knopf, 1960). ↩
Fifteenth-century Florence was more indulgent and more lenient, as Michael Rocke explains in a recent book, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Extrapolating from the documents of a city magistracy for the seventy years ending in 1502, Rocke concludes that “the vast majority of Florentine males engaged in homosexual relations.” By the age of thirty, “one of every two youths had been formally implicated in sodomy,” but to confess it was, most commonly, to escape conviction. ↩