Magazine article The Spectator

A Musical Outing

Magazine article The Spectator

A Musical Outing

Article excerpt

VIRGIL THOMSON: COMPOSER ON THE AISLE

by Anthony Tommasini

W.W. Norton & Co., L22.50, pp. 605

'As soon as Lou Rispoli came back from lunch, he knew he was in for it.' The opening paragraph of Anthony Tommasini's book found me nervously checking that I hadn't reached for a thriller rather than the authorised biography of a celebrated composer. But no. Here is Lou's employer, Virgil Thomson, almost 90 and still formidable, standing tensely near the ebony table ready to pounce. He had found out about his birthday surprise and was not pleased.

Poor Lou, despite being 'a solid, gregarious gay man with the street-smart and jaded ways of a native New Yorker', is, indeed, in for it. Oddly enough, so is his employer.

For this is the 'outing' of Virgil Thomson, an event the composer did not contemplate while alive. Where homosexuality was concerned, he was of a generation which believed in private acknowledgment and public reticence. Thomson went further, strenuously compartmentalising his private and professional lives to the extent of actively misleading casual readers of his 1966 memoirs with imaginative details of his exploits as a ladies' man. As late as 1985, aged 89, he forbade a reference by his lifetime friend and sometime lover, Maurice Grosser, to the double bed in Paris (in 1925) `where Virgil and I shared many passionate moments together'.

And who shall blame him? Apart from his conviction that his private life was nobody's business, he had lived through a time when queer friends and colleagues had been ostracised and pilloried, imprisoned and ruined. In 1942 he came close to exposure when New York's finest swooped on a male brothel. They were after bigger fish and he was released, but he was unnerved, especially when Walter Winchell alluded to him in his column. Thomson had taken no hostages in his careers as composer and critic. He could expect little mercy if thrown to the wolves.

But we are entitled to ask if Thomson's sexual reticence had any bearing on his career. Tommasini, a celebrated music critic and himself proudly 'out', is initially circumspect, noting in a preface that `this aspect of [Thomson's] story is critical but, in a way, not central'. The publisher is less reticent, quoting one reviewer's opinion that 'Tommasini's candour about VT's sex life makes his book a milestone in the maturation of gay musical politics'. Throughout the book we are left in no doubt that if only Thomson had come openly to terms with his sexuality, he would have been a nicer person.

Not once in print or in public did VT recount a comparable homosexual relationship with such uncloseted gratitude. …

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