Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was a many-faceted American composer and a music critic. Utilizing a musical style marked by sharp wit and overt playfulness, he composed in almost every genre of music, producing a highly original body of work rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony. His music was influenced by Satie’s ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony, and humor. Though mostly diatonic and tonal in feeling, some of his work was densely chromatic (Three Tone Poems) and even 12-tone in organization (A Solemn Music).
His early connection to music came through the church, through piano lessons beginning at age 5, and stints accompanying theatricals and silent films. The music he heard was part and parcel of the wide world around him: Civil War songs, cowboy songs, the blues, barn-dance music, Baptist hymns, folk songs, popular songs, in addition to the canons of Western art music that he studied. After attending high school and a local junior college, he joined the army and was stationed in New York City.
After World War I, he entered Harvard University, where he focused his studies on the piano work of Erik Satie. He studied in Paris on fellowship for a year, and after graduating, lived in Paris from 1925 until 1940. He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger and became a fixture of "Paris in the twenties."
His definition of music was famously "that which musicians do," and his views on music are radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source.
Photo by William Glenesk