Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

THOMSON, VIRGIL (1896-1989)

Virgil Thomson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1947

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Virgil Thomson, classical composer and music critic, was born on November 25, 1896, in Kansas City, Missouri, where he learned piano and played organ at his family's Calvary Baptist Church. After serving in the army during World War I, Thomson studied composition and conducting in New York, Paris, and Boston. He graduated from Harvard in 1923. Returning to Paris in 1925, his home until 1940, Thomson came under the influence of composition pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and French composer Erik Satie, whose clarity, simplicity, and humor he admired.

Thomson's large body of work, which includes operas, symphonies, chamber pieces, songs, and film scores, while reflecting the classicism of his formal studies, is largely rooted in his early musical experiences in Kansas City. Indeed, in his well-known scores for the celebrated documentary films The River (1937), The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), and Louisiana Story (1948), the last of which earned a Pulitzer Prize, Thomson incorporated familiar American religious and secular melodies. Even in his operas, most famously, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), Thomson employed the musical vernacular of his midwestern background, an example of the "new simplicity" and growing nationalism of American serious music of the 1930s.

In addition to composing, Thomson enjoyed a successful career as a music journalist. Having established himself in the pages of Modern Music during the 1930s, he was commissioned to write The State of Music (1939), which argued that musicians should produce their own music. On the strength of that work, the New York Herald Tribune hired Thomson as its chief music critic. During his reign at the Tribune from 1940 to 1954, Thomson's provocative commentaries were anthologized in The Right of Judging (1948), Music Right and Left (1951), and Music Reviewed, 1940–54 (1967). In the 1970s and 1980s Thomson devoted himself largely to teaching and lecturing. He died in New York City on September 30, 1989.

See also FILM: The Plow That Broke the Plains .

Chuck Berg University of Kansas

Rockwell, John. A Virgil Thomson Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Thomson, Virgil. Virgil Thomson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1966.

Tommasini, Anthony. Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

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