The Happy Infamy of Virgil Thomson

Alongside our current exhibition 4 Saints in 3 Acts, Alex Ross considers the stylistic tics of composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who wrote the score for the 1934 opera of the same name. Further writing on the exhibition, including a contextual essay by The Photographers’ Gallery’s curator Anna Dannemann, can be read in the new issue of Loose Associations.


One evening in the nineteen-eighties, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson attended a dinner hosted by his younger colleague Ned Rorem. After the meal, Thomson dozed off, as was his wont, and awoke to find himself in the middle of a vigorous debate. ‘What are we discussing?’ he asked. ‘Beethoven,’ someone replied. ‘Top drawer,’ Thomson drawled, and went back to sleep.

There, in two drowsy words, is the inimitable Thomson style, which is now enshrined in the nearly twelve-hundred-page Library of America volume Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles, 1940-1954. The co-creator, along with Gertrude Stein, of two of the greatest American operas – Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All – Thomson took music very seriously, but he did not always speak about it in a serious tone, and he liked nothing better than to puncture the solemn cult that long ago arose around the principal figures in classical music. In calling Beethoven top drawer, he was at once saluting the composer’s monumental status and suggesting, with due irreverence, that Beethoven was no god come down to earth but, simply, a very, very good practitioner of his art.

To understand how Thomson acquired a certain happy infamy at mid-century, you must first grasp the peculiarly prominent position that classical music occupied in this country circa 1940, when, after two decades in Stein’s Paris, Thomson was appointed the chief music critic of the Herald Tribune. Conductors, composers, and opera singers routinely appeared on the cover of Time; Toscanini was a huge star of NBC radio, presiding over weekly concerts in the studio that is now occupied by Saturday Night Live; millions of schoolchildren listened to “music appreciation” homilies delivered by the conductor Walter Damrosch. In other words, classical music was, in those days, thoroughly mainstream; you could express a taste for it without being labelled a snob or a sissy. Annegret Fauser, in her recent book Sounds of War, notes that during the Second World War a survey of more than four thousand soldiers found that classical music was the second-most-popular genre, after swing and jazz, and that a crew of twenty-eight Navy gunners became obsessed with a recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, wearing out the grooves while voyaging to North Africa.

Thomson tore into this middlebrow utopia with unconcealed glee, killing one sacred cow after another. His début review for the Herald Tribune dismisses Sibelius’s Second Symphony as ‘vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description.’ Toscanini is described as ‘very little dependent on literary culture and historical knowledge’; Vladimir Horowitz as ‘a master of musical distortion.’ Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, a potent symbol of the Allied struggle against the Nazis, ‘seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.’ A review of Jascha Heifetz, who appeared on the Navy gunners’ favourite Beethoven disk, has this superbly bitchy kicker: ‘Four-starred super-luxury hotels are a legitimate commerce. The fact remains, however, that there is about their machine-tooled finish and empty elegance something more than just a trifle vulgar.”

Whether Thomson fairly judged these artists is beside the point. (For my taste, he was completely wrong about Sibelius and Shostakovich, less than half right about Toscanini, and just a little over the top about Horowitz and Heifetz.) What matters, is that he went after a body of conventional wisdom that was congealing into cant. Yes, classical music had achieved remarkable popularity in Depression and wartime America, but it was failing to put down deep cultural roots. It relied on a media apparatus whose enthusiasm would prove fleeting. It also leaned too heavily on recording and on broadcast technologies, which, Thomson said, ‘give it a slight flavour as of canned food.’ Further, the critic was mistrustful of an increasingly professionalised and routinised performance culture that tended to value fineness of execution above force of expression. In the middle of the war, he dared to compare the typical American orchestra to ‘a Panzer division on the march.’ In all, he depicts a successful but complacent industry, one that was in danger of losing its sense of artistic purpose.

As a practicing composer, Thomson was maddened most of all by the degree to which concert programs had devolved into a fixed canon, which he famously named the “Fifty Pieces”. In a 1944 essay, he rails against not only the unchanging nature of that repertory but also the idea of the masterpiece itself. One passage is worth quoting at length:

The enjoyment and understanding of music are dominated in a most curious way by the prestige of the masterpiece. Neither the theatre nor the cinema nor poetry nor narrative fiction pays allegiance to its ideal of excellence in the tyrannical way that music does. They recognize no unbridgeable chasm between “great work” and the rest of production. Even the world of art painting, though it is no less a victim than that of music to Appreciation rackets based on the concept of gilt-edged quality, is more penetrable to reason in this regard, since such values, or the pretences about them advanced by investing collectors and museums, are more easily unmasked as efforts to influence market prices. But music in our time (and in our country) seems to be committed to the idea that first-class work in composition is separable from the rest of music-writing by a distinction as radical as that recognized in theology between the elect and the damned. Or at the very least as rigorous an exclusion from glory as that which formerly marked the difference between Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred and the rest of the human race. This snobbish definition of excellence is opposed to the classical concept of a Republic of Letters. It reposes, rather, on the theocratic idea that inspiration is less a privilege of the private citizen than of the ordained prophet. Its weakness lies in the fact that music, though it serves most becomingly as religion’s handmaiden, is not a religion. Music does not deal in general ideas of morality or salvation. It is an art. It expresses private sentiments through skill and sincerity, both of which last are a privilege, a duty, indeed, of the private citizen, and no monopoly of the prophetically inclined.

With a slight hint of Marxist cultural theory… the critic lays out the fundamental problem at the heart of American classical music: its overweening veneration of a European heritage that the Europeans themselves had learned to treat more sceptically.

Even the most brilliant conversationalists can grow tiring when you are locked in a room with them for too long a time. While many American classical critics have sought to emulate Thomson, Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chroniclerecently ventured the contrary opinion that Thomson was ‘a virtual paragon of how not to practice music criticism.’ Kosman mentions Thomson’s myriad conflicts of interest and his relentless stylistic tics. And, Kosman observes, Thomson tends not, despite his vast knowledge, to analyse works in any particular depth or justify his pricklier opinions. Certainly, I wouldn’t hold up Thomson as the supreme modern representative of the profession… still, Thomson’s wit, fire, and prescience outweigh his flaws; he was a formidable player in his historical moment, and his moment reverberates into our own.

— Alex Ross

Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. His first bookThe Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Guardian First Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His second book is the essay collection Listen to This. He is now at work on Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. Ross has received an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Belmont Prize in Germany, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

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