Academic journal article Journalism History

More Than a Modest Subculture

Academic journal article Journalism History

More Than a Modest Subculture

Article excerpt

Virgil Thomson's "Nearly Perfect" Music Criticism

In his first appearance in the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson ripped the opening concert of the New York Philharmonic's ninety-ninth season. The October 11, 1940, review, entitled "Age Without Honor," read in part:

The connect as a whole, in fact, both as to program and as to playing, was anything but a memorable experience. The music itself was soggy, the playing dull and brutal. As a friend remarked who had never been to one of these concerts before, "I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York's intellectual life."1

For fourteen years at the Herald Tribune, Thomson rightfully challenged the comfortable, jaded, bourgeois illusion that music was immune from the dynamics of the larger aesthetic culture. From 1940 to 1954, he constructed an agenda that served his musical and journalistic purposes equally well. As a composer, he wanted to demonstrate, that contrary to the beliefs of those who managed and controlled musical institutions, musicians wanted popular success but on their own creative terms. That is, the challenges of contemporary music should not be foolishly viewed by the musical establishment as attempts by composers to bypass the mass public for a limited audience of genuine classical music lovers.

Thomson also set out to clear up the misunderstanding about the public's taste for classical music. Simply, it was not difficult music to which serious music lovers objected, but those compositions that were not familiar. Second, in the wake of growing commercialism where radio stations and recording companies decided which music was "listener friendly," he wanted to show that music was not a modest subculture in which different segments were defined along the lines of the popularity charts. Rather, music transcended the technical and theoretical ambitions of art as mere entertainment. As for serious music lovers, he wanted to show that they did not fall neatly into demographic categories. They were represented across society's many diverse boundaries.

Thomson desired an American musical culture free of the contaminating influences of commercialism, oldfashioned music universalism, and stale European imports. He wanted to show readers a dynamic music culture radically different from the safe halls of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.

A financially strapped composer, he fled Paris in 1940 just before the Nazi occupation and faced an uncertain fudge upon his return to the US. Much of his music was not widely performed and he believed that a prominent newspaper post might stimulate interest in his compositions. Not bothered by the fact that he would continue to be active as a composer and conductor, his bosses concluded that Thomson's professional artistic partiality would not compromise his capacity for fair-minded musical analysis.

Thomson also was allowed to travel freely and send in his reviews. He covered music in San Francisco, Boston, Dallas and Pittsburgh as well as South America and Europe. He was a frequenty lecturer and conductor. "The paper liked all the, activity because it kept my name before the public." Anthony Tommasini, in his authorized biography ol Thomson, noted that Geoffrey Parsons, his editorial superior, never seemed to challenge the composer in "regard to his most glaring offense: conflict ol interest. Thomson's new prominence was winning him new champions."3

Thomson's Herald Tribune writings deserve serious examination as an important fragment of intellectual history. While reviews of concerts and recordings might attract readers with specific musical interests and training, Thomson's articles are valuable because they reflect a musical insider who was sensitively attuned to the needs of composers and to the desires of audiences within the larger discourse of ideas. He wisely used preciously rationed newspaper space to describe new musical works to skeptical audiences and to publicize composers and musicians who experimented with new idioms or creative musical enterprises. …

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