The Knight Errant of Music Criticism

Dominique Nabokov
Virgil Thomson, New York City, 1980

In 1942 the composer Ned Rorem, then nineteen, attended a panel at Northwestern University made up of various grandees from the world of music. One of them—a short, stocky bald man with a high-pitched voice and a face like an owl—was Virgil Thomson, a composer and the chief classical music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. The panel, as Rorem remembered it, began with an attempt to define music:

The others were falling back on Shakespeare’s “concord of sweet sounds” when Thomson shrieked: “Boy, was he wrong! You might as well call painting a juxtaposition of pretty colors, or poems a succession of lovely words. What is music? Why, it’s what we musicians do.”

The story captures some of what makes Thomson’s music writing at once so admirable and so maddening. At its best, his criticism was disarmingly direct and unpretentious. He could write with style, and had a knack for bringing the sound of music to life, as when he described the finale of the Brahms Third Symphony, “where the winds play sustained harmonic progressions which the violins caress with almost inaudible tendrils of sound, little wiggly figures that dart like silent goldfish around a rock.” He was a fierce advocate of styles of music that were dismissed as quaint and unimportant or ignored entirely, especially French music, such as the works of Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie, and new music by living American composers. Most of all he had a willingness to speak his mind even when it meant contradicting the press, the concert-going public, and the administrations who ran the orchestras.

But he was hardly a model critic. He gave friends positive reviews, enemies negative reviews, and usually made sure his own music was reviewed by a stringer (occasionally he did it himself). He routinely slept through performances he was reviewing, had a penchant for making sweeping and sometimes perplexing generalizations, and dismissed beloved works and composers with little explanation, which made him seem at times like a dyspeptic, irascible crank.

Many of his musical opinions—often deeply idiosyncratic—have not aged well (he hated Sibelius, didn’t particularly like Wagner, was lukewarm on Gershwin, and considered Ives a minor composer). These views were generally of a piece with his music, which was modest and tonal and heavily Francophile, drawing especially on the work of Satie, medieval sacred music, and American hymns and folksongs. In fact he considered himself a composer who wrote music criticism and did so because, in his words, “I thought that perhaps my presence in a post so prominent might stimulate the performance of my works.”

Yet by the time he left the Herald Tribune in 1954, his provocations had changed the American classical music world for the better: in particular there were more performances by living composers, especially Americans. Two volumes from the…

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