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. …