Composers of Today: A Comprehensive Biographical and Critical Guide to Modern Composers of All Nations

By David Ewen | Go to book overview
BALLET : Masque of Red Death; Tale of Princess Oulyba; Dionysius; The Romance of a Mummy.
CHORAL : Two masses; Sappho.
CHAMBER MUSIC : Quartet in A; Six Quartets for Four Horns.
Piano pieces; songs.

About Nikolai Tcherepnine:

Montagu-Nathan Montagu. Contemporary Russian Composers; Sabaneyev Leonid. Modern Russian Composers.


Virgil Thomson 1896-

"He is our musical satirist, our Erik Satie."--JOHN TASKER HOWARD

VIRGIL THOMSON, whose name became luminous in modern music with the première of his sensational Four Saints in Three Acts on the text of Gertrude Stein, was born in Kansas City in 1896, of pioneer stock. Coming East, he became a student at Harvard University, from which he was graduated. For a year he taught music in Boston, and then officiated as choirmaster and organist of King's Chapel in the same city. Finally, winning a Naumberg Fellowship, Thomson left for Paris where he remained for ten years.

In Paris, Thomson completed his musical studies under Nadia Boulanger and began composing in the pungent and spicy style which was henceforth to become so uniquely his own idiom. In Paris, too, he became a friend of Gertrude Stein, and was so deeply impressed with her amazing writings that he decided to set her unusual prosody to music. After having made settings of some of Gertrude Stein poems, Capital Capitals, for chorus, he turned to the more ambitious task of composing an opera on a text written especially for him Four Saints in Three Acts. We find mention of this fact in Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: "Virgil had asked Gertrude Stein to write an opera for him. Among the saints there were two saints whom she had always liked better than any others, Saint Theresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola, and she said she would write an opera about these two saints. She began this and worked very hard at it all spring and finally finished Four Saints and gave it to Virgil to put to music. He did. And it is a completely interesting opera both as to words and music."

Four Saints in Three Acts was given its première by a cast of Negroes in Hartford, Connecticut, during the first week of February, 1934, sponsored by the "Friends and Enemies of Modern Music." It was brought to New York, where it enjoyed a successful limited engagement, beginning February 21, 1934.

What surprised most critics, upon hearing the score of Virgil Thomson's opera, was the fact that altho the text was quite unfathomable, with its endless procession of unintelligible words and syllables, the composer had constructed, not a modernistic score, but very tuneful and engaging music with very tasteful melodies and clear, pellucid harmonies. As Olin Downes commented: "Mr. Thomson took his task gayly. He laughed at himself as at others greater than he. He wore lightly what is obviously a real knowledge of prosody and a great skill in combining music and text. He showed that he knew very well the half, if not the whole, of opera technique. He had in the Stein text, if he had nothing else there, a superb vehicle for his melodic virtuosity. He took syllables of the lesser consequence and jumbled them together in swift alliteration, over tremolos of strings, or booms of the drums, or set them to joyous silly rhythms. The combination was funny where the text by itself would have been obvious and labored--would in fact have missed fire. Then when he wanted to make a phrase tell he found for it a rhythm, accent and shape of the melodic line that fitted the words like a glove. Once in a while the Stein text relapses into something like a meaning. . . . Quick as a flash, the composer pounces upon it, throws it, with a singular adroitness, straight at the audience's head, and this with such reckless ease and certainty of aim that one is hardly aware until it is over of the cunning of it."

While the critics were bewildered by the Gertrude Stein text--with its line after line of dialog of which the frequently-quoted "Let Lucy Lily Lily

____________________
Thomson: tŏm'sŭn

-278-

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