Up and Down the Aisle
Mellers, Wilfrid, Musical Times
WILFRID MELLERS welcomes a major biography of the peculiarly potent' Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson: composer on the aisle
Anthony Tommasini Norton (New York & London, 1998); xiii, 605pp; 22.50. ISBN 0 393 04006 2.
ONE MIGHT THINK Virgil Thomson to be a peripheral figure to be honoured by an autobiography of 450 pages, by several modest-sized studies of his life and works, and now by this fashionably mammoth biography of more than six hundred pages, written by a musician who launched his writing career with a doctoral thesis on Thomson's 'musical portraits'. All this palaver is not, however, otiose: for Thomson, if a sometimes very good but indubitably minor composer, proved a peculiarly potent force in America's, and our, musical life.
He came of a long-living family whose remote ancestors embraced both Agincourt and the American Revolutionary War. Although he managed to conform with family tradition in becoming a nonagenarian, he disappointed himself and others in failing to make the new millennium. His documentary significance, which is why he matters, lies in his mating a raw New World (that of Kansas City where he was born in 1896, and of New York, in whose Chelsea Hotel he resided for more than half a century) with a highly sophisticated but very Old World (that of Paris, where he lived through the twenties, and intermittently during the rest of his long life, in consort with the artistic avant-garde). His childhood was fairly easy, despite powerful Southern Baptist ancestry on his father's side, and densely tentacular family roots embracing rafts of ancient aunts and hopefully burgeoning cousins. Something within this tangled web ensured his being exceptionally bright and surprisingly forceful. His multifarious gifts crystallised into an amalgam of music with literature. He relished the hymns, parlour songs, salon pieces and brass bands that were the musical bric-d-brac of Kansas, gravitating from them, with the help of an early mentor, Robert Murray, to the artier music of Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy and MacDowell - whose Sea pieces were deservedly an American favourite. As performer, Thomson became an ad hoc church organist and cinema pianist from the age of 13. Another mentor, school-teacher Ellen Fox, generously fostered his literary gifts.
During these adolescent years the problem of Girls occasionally reared its dubiously lovely head, and Alice Smith, though `troubled by his conceit', became a lifelong friend. At the same time Virgil was aware that his proclivities were homosexual - there may have been a latent sexual undertow to his relation with his early helpmate, Robert Murray Several intense boy-friendships evolved: though Virgil, with his stern Protestant background, `didn't want to be queer' and, through most of his life, sought to keep secret his queerness; in those distant days 'gay' would have been an inappropriate adjective. Perhaps this was why he was eager to enlist in the First World War in which, though he never saw active service, his brightness was rewarded with respectable rank. Ambivalence was evident in his response to Kansas City, the `open vice' of which he almost salaciously savoured, while making no mention of homosexuality
RETURNED from his aborted war service, Virgil entered Harvard. Although not conpicuously rich, he was born with silver poons in his mouth, so that gifts and scholarships wafted to the support of his cleverness. Among his Harvard tutors he had scant time for the `stubborn and pedantic' Walter Spalding, but appreciated Archibald T. Davison who, though contemptuous of the demotic musics that had pervaded Virgil's childhood, introduced him to what we call Early Music. He also profited from Burlington Hill, a composer whose tastes were French (Debussy and Ravel) and Franco-Russian (Stravinsky), rather than German. But he owed most to S. Foster Damon of the Harvard English department: a remarkable man and Blake scholar, who fired Virgil's interests in poetry and painting, introducing him to TS Eliot's verse and criticism, to Ezra Pound, and, climacterically, to Gertrude Stein's Tender buttons. Around this time Thomson also lighted on the piano music of Erik Satie, which `changed my life'; between them, Stein and Satie banished from Thomson's consciousness even able American academics like Randall Thompson and Walter Piston, though Virgil granted that Piston was `the best musician of us all'. It was another academic, Melville Smith, who garnered the wherewithall that enabled Thomson to gravitate from Harvard to Paris, instead of returning to Kansas City. Making the Paris trip as a singing member of Harvard's quintessentially American Glee Club, Virgil became a composition pupil of Nadia Boulanger, an icon who was to be of formidable import in the story of American music.
Boulanger was much impressed by Virgil's razorsharp intelligence, but dubious about his skills in the (by her standards) rigorously musical training she insisted on. Perhaps because of this dubiety, Virgil didn't think Boulanger was 'right' for him, though he recognised that Paris itself couldn't have been righter:
I used to say that I lived in Paris because it reminded me of Kansas City [...] and not only was Paris to be my new home town, but all France, so little did I feel alien here, was to be like another Missouri - a cosmopolitan crossroads, frank and friendly and actually not far from the same geographic size.
During these early Parisian days Virgil met Jean Cocteau and Les Six, but just missed close acquaintance with his father-figure Satie, since he died in 1925. Still, it was in these years that Thomson began belatedly to compose, and was also launched on a writing career when Henry Taylor Parker, spotting the vivacity of his literary style, invited him to contribute to the Boston Evening Transcript.
Back at Harvard to complete his degree, Thomson had to contend with his professors' dissatisfaction with his academic harmony and counterpoint, and with his first 'serious' homosexual affair, with Briggs Buchanan; he was disturbed by the former but coped effectively with the latter. He took conducting classes to enhance his practical musicianship, which he considered more important than 'theory'; but, feeling that Harvard was no longer a viable scene for him, he went back to Paris, as it were for keeps, proclaiming his independence in a set of `Maxims of a modernist' that asserted that the Three Duties of a Man were `to sustain life, to enjoy sexual activity, and to assist the ego'. If these maxims were a desperate attempt to counter low spirits prompted by nervous agitations and sheer shortage of money, the seductions of Paris soon compensated. Virgil met Joyce, Hemingway, Cummings, Ford Madox Ford, and Ezra Pound, whose Villon opera appealed to him on both musical and literary grounds. He also consorted with George Antheil, Pound's protege and a famous Bad Boy of music, whom Virgil hoped to emulate, and perhaps did emulate in his first compositions to make a slightly outrageous mark - the deliciously subversive Sonata da chiesa and the first Gertrude Stein settings, especially Capital capitals and Susie Asado. Thomson soon disowned Antheil, a Bad Boy who grew up too good to be true; but the decisive event of his life was his becoming a member of the Gertrude Stein circle, not only because of the charisma of Gertrude and to a lesser degree of Alice Toklas, but also because through them he met many famous visual artists, including Picasso and Christian Berard, who later did the magical decor for Cocteau's film about the wonder of childhood, Beauty and the beast. Virgil never forgot this debt: Berard's paintings still adorned his rooms in the Chelsea Hotel, during the last decade of his life.
BACK in the Paris of the twenties Thomson also met, through Stein, the talented and conspicuously beautiful novelist Mary Butts. Christening her `the Storm Goddess', he was so enthralled by her that he might have barbarously thought of her as a `sexual object', had she not displayed 'a feminine weakness for marriage'. Like many gay men, Virgil enjoyed the company of handsome women, not merely because he nervously thought it would put people off the track; much later, he even proposed marriage to a woman of considerable charm and intellect, only to be laughed out of court(ship). In twenties Paris, however, he escaped the Storm Goddess since her lure was countered by his meeting with Maurice Grosser, a reasonably successful if not highly fashionable painter who became his closest approach to a lasting sexual relationship. Tommasini hazards that Maurice was the only person Virgil ever loved, though both lovers agreed to be ships that pass in the night.
Thomson's association with Gertrude Stein culminated, in 1927, in their jointly making an opera, Four saints in three acts, which is still the composer's, and perhaps also the writer's, most vivid memorial. Its dadaism was a response to the dark chaos of the First World War, releasing `that part of the individual which remains a child or savage: pure psychic automatism, a compilation of the accidental'. Saints, presented in 'landscapes' in a mythical Spain, are adult children; and Thomson, with Stein's runic text potent in his memory, initially improvised the plain diatonic score at a piano. It turned out to be not so much abstract Parisian sophistication, as `an almost total recall of my Southern Baptist childhood in Kansas'. Virgil's solo performance, `at the piano', of the hymns and parlour ditties of his opera were much relished by friends and acquaintances; given Gertrude's eminence, he had little doubt that the piece's inspired zaniness would eventually be theatrically realised, making his fame if not his fortune. Before that could happen, however, Virgil had to return to New York, to become part of the American musical scene, where Aaron Copland was `dean of American composers' precisely because, in Leonard Bernstein's words, `he was the best'. The innovative Edgard Varese and the hermetic Carl Ruggles, with Roy Harris and Henry Cowell a few rungs lower on the ladder, were the other main creative forces in what was the great era of American music. The intellectually brilliant Roger Sessions, mostly living in Europe as he evolved into a fully fledged Schoenbergian serialist, was co-opted by Copland to help run the American League of Composers, though he never espoused Copland's national and political motivations, and was mistrusted by Thomson alike for his Teutonicism and his serialism. Most of these composers, and other younger ones such as Theodore Chanler, Marc Blitzstein, and Paul Bowles, wrote for the League's journal, Modern Music, brilliantly edited (unpaid) over an unexpectedly long period, by another of Virgil's lady-friends, Minna Lederman. Thomson himself added to the sparkle of what is surely the liveliest periodical ever devoted to music.
While Thomson liked being active in the abrasively burgeoning New York scene, his energy between 1929 and 1933 was directed towards giving material substance to the vision of Four saints in three acts. A team consisting of himself, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Grosser and Georges Hugnet found a couple of tycoon-backers, R. Kirk Askew jnr (whom Virgil had known slightly at Harvard), and Everett Chuck Austin jnr (who was forming a ballet company with the rich and talented Lincoln Kirstein). After Virgil had decided that he wanted an all-black cast, because of the presumptively saintly dignity of negro bearing and the childlike spontaneity of negro voices, Carl van Vechten was brought in as white authority on black moeurs, while Florine Stettheimer was invited to design sets and costumes because her paintings were `very high camp, and high camp is the only thing you can do with a religious subject, since high camp taps into the innocence of true faith'. The already famous Frederick Ashton agreed to choreograph, and John Houseman was appointed director because Virgil thought he could control him. Virgil's skills at `social manipulation' persuaded the great Balanchine to co-operate as dancer and adviser; and his arch-professionalism was balanced by the eager amateurism of Eva Jessye's black chorus, who proved quick to cotton on. The only nigger in the woodpile - if a politically incorrect joke be permitted - was that the committee that had assembled so promising a team was itself riven by petty petulances, bickering over the sizes their names were printed in on publicity material, and almost stymied by Gertrude's all too predictable demand that royalty rights be split 50/50 between Virgil and herself, rather than the usual two-thirds to the composer, who has the more onerous task. Tommasini's chapters on Four saints make fascinating but painful reading, for the distinguished protagonists behave like spoiled brats rather than saintly kiddies. Unforgiving Stein refused to attend the performance (at Hartford, Connecticut), and so missed 'a knock out and a wow'. The first-night audience was illustrious, starred with music and theatre celebrities, not to mention the powerfully patrician poet Wallace Stevens. Reviews, apart from a predictable grouse by old Olin Downes, were triumphant, with Theodore Chanler live on the mark in praising the music's `fleeting tenderness, the sense of not knowing what will come next'. Perceptively, he found this quality also in the Symphony on a hymn tune which Thompson was composing when Gertrude's saints bowled him over, so that he improvised the first act in between the composition of the symphony's third and last movements.
The collocation of the cosmopolitan Four saints with the regional Symphony on a hymn tune was prophetic in a way that Virgil couldn't have realised during his Parisian youth. For after the saints' belated American triumph in 1934, Thomson had another kind of success in New York, working, despite his apolitical nature, for the New Deal's Federal Theatre project with the precocious, and in several senses tremendous, Orson Welles. Their first collaboration was when Virgil devised a percussive hubbub, rather than a score, for Welles's Workers' production of Macbeth; by way of Paul Lorenz he then gravitated into documentary film music, writing scores for the dust-bowl film, The plough that broke the plains, and for the Mississippi floods film, The river, in connection with which Maurice Grosser unearthed a rare copy of the l9thcentury Southern harmony, from which Virgil filched Baptist hymn tunes. Virgil's gifts as a composer of documentary film music may be attributable to his 'outsider' status as watching eye and listening ear. Tommasini somewhat extravagantly claims that Copland's success as a composer of agrarian ballets owes much to Thomson's film score; certainly there is no doubt that Virgil's film music has worn remarkably well.
STABLISHED in New York, with the succes de scandale of Four saints and the solid worth of the film scores to back him up, Thomson took time off from composing to assess the nature of the professional world he inhabited. He wrote The state of music, a polemical book as hilarious as it is wise, covering impartially musical techniques and the economic backcloth to the art. At the same time he set the seal on his literary career by becoming first critic of the New York Herald Tribune, under the sage editorship of Geoffrey Parson. Now having an 'office' job, he put down (shallow) roots by moving `permanently' into the Chelsea Hotel, patronised by so many famous and infamous artists, poets, and show-businesss people, living there from 1943 until his death in 1989. Over the years his journalism was surely the most acute, as well as entertaining, ever published in the English language: consider the end of his review of a production of Don Giovanni:
Don Giovanni is one of the funniest shows in the world and one of the most terrifying. It is all about love and it kids love to a fare-ye-well. It is the world's greatest opera and the world's greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that the morality gets lost before the play is fairly started.
He is no less astute about then little known composers such as Roy Harris and Paul Bowles; and if he is silly about Sibelius, that was at the fevered height of the Sibelius boom. He makes few other howlers, though he contradicted himself, or was plain wrong, about Porgy and Bess, perhaps as a residue of his unsubstantiated standing as a Southern gentleman.
Thomson's life over the second half of our century was a medley of gains and losses. Sharing a veneration of Satie with John Cage, he rashly invited Cage to write a book on the Thomson Life and Works, only to discover that Cage didn't toe the Thomson line, or any line but his own. The sundering of amity makes sad reading; though the commissioning, by the college for whom Britten and Auden wrote Paul Bunyan, of a second Stein opera, The mother of us all, cheered everyone up, partially healing the breach between writer and composer. Stein produced a brilliant, relatively intelligible, book that explores not mythical saints in a mythical Spain, but real figures (and a few invented ones) from American l9th-century political history, resonating beautifully with Virgil's `American' identity. Unfortunately the Grim Reaper plucked Gertrude just before the piece was produced, so she couldn't attend a first night that, although a workaday production for which hardly anyone was paid, was a glamourous occasion, attended by no fewer that seven maestro conductors. The reviews were fine; even the dyspeptic Olin Downes conceded that it contained enough music to keep it in the repertory: which has proved true, at least of colleges and small opera houses.
In the wake of The mother came the apex to Thomson's film music career - a full-length documentary movie (ironically sponsored by a carfuel company) about the co-existence of, rather than the conflict between, life in the Acadian (and Arcadian) Louisianan bayous and the encroaching oil industry. Thomson's sixty minutes of music were adapted to make two concert suites that brought him the best reviews he'd ever had, along with the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a filmmusic score. Since both film and music turn on the child's innocent eye and ear and the virtue, in the Roman sense, of agrarian America, this triumph makes sense; and one isn't surprised that Louisiana story was soon followed by the Five Blake songs - one of Virgil's finest, and most deeply characteristic, scores.
To balance these gains stand a few losses. The Cello Concerto, a good score related to the Louisiana story music, didn't exactly fail, but didn't, to Virgil's chagrin, `enter the repertory'. Perhaps this influenced the refusal of the grumpily apolitical Thomson to defend the great Aaron Copland who had done so much for American music and, indeed, for America herself - against the obscene machinations of the Un-American Activities Committee. Around the same time a new love-affair, with a painter 29 years Virgil's junior, proved tempestuously abortive; while his resignation from the New York Herald Tribune turned out to be unfortunate, leading not - as he naively expected - to an increase in the number of his commissions and performances, but to a precipitous decline. To keep his head spiritually, if not materially, above water, he needed to embark on another major opera. With Stein no longer available, Thomson cultitivated a then young, slightly Steinian poet, Kenneth Koch, who produced a text received by Virgil with rapturous enthusiasm, but then discarded because the central female character was 'wet'. A cycle of Love songs for voice and piano is the only legacy of this non-collaboration. Next to the Blake songs, these are the most moving songs Thomson created; one wishes he'd shown more patience over the opera libretto.
Eventually, however, he found a text from a bright Bad Boy called Jack Larson, on the subject of Lord Byron - a Virgilian theme in being 'a Lord, a genius, a millionaire, and a beauty'. In this climax to the Thomson story the ups at first seemed to exceed the downs, for there was a commission from the prestigious New York Met, presided over by the imperious Rudolf Bing; and even when Bing in effect, though not in so many words, rejected it, it seemed that the Julliard School of Music, then at the height of its brilliance, would save the day David Hockney, (a famous friend of Larson) was to do sets and costumes, Frederick Ashton to direct and choreograph, a fine cast of singers was assembled. Against that, the conductor was poor, and little-known; and although the orchestra included many players later to become celebrated as soloists or chamber musicians, their response tended to be rambunctious. Then Hockney and Ashton dropped out; eventually, the opera limped on, through a `cavalcade of catastrophes', to a reception that could hardly be called enthusiastic. There were some supporters; but the powerful Harold Schoenberg dismissed it as 'a very bland score, distressingly banal (all those waltzes!) and frequently gagglingly cutesy'.
HOMSON continued to maintain that it was his greatest work (he had to). Even so, the disaster darkened his declining years as a succession of minders, beginning with a heterosexual black man both charismatic and talented, gradually turned into nurses rather than secretaries. The final pages of this wellresearched, lucently written, unflinchingly honest book are almost too painful to be borne. An ultimate twist of the knife tells us how Jay Sullivan, the last and least artily intellectual of the minders, when left 5000 dollars by Virgil's will, gave 2000 of them to Virgil's Portuguese cleaning-lady, who had been totally ignored. Jay told the cleaning-lady that the money was from Thomson: proving that gentility flowers independently of caste or class.
Wilfrid Mellers's books include his classic study of musical Americana Music in a new found land…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Up and Down the Aisle. Contributors: Mellers, Wilfrid - Author. Magazine title: Musical Times. Volume: 139. Issue: 1864 Publication date: Autumn 1998. Page number: 53+. © Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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