Virgil Thompson and his influences on the musical life in NYC

Virgil Thompson and his influences on the musical life in NYC

Virgil Thompson was both a composer, conductor and a music critic. He was born in Kansas City on November 25, 1896, and died in New York on September 30, 1989 (Huizenda n.p). He composed songs, choral works, chamber music, piano pieces, and film music. His forward-looking ideas had a great influence among contemporary musicians.

Thompson started taking his piano lessons when he was only five years old, courtesy of his cousin Lela Garnet. He studied at Harvard University.  He also served in the National Guard during the First World War. According to Editors (n.p), however, he later proceeded to Paris where he met with early 20th century French composers such as Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger who significantly impacted his perspective on music. He was particularly greatly influenced by Erik Satie’s works which were simple, clear and humorous.

At Paris Thompson also met his friend-to-be Stein. In 1927, they decided to write an opera together. They authored the “Four Saints in Three Acts,” a piece of work based on the lives of two Spanish saints – Teresa of Avilla and Ignatius Loyola (Huizenda n.p). The work was completed in 1928 although it was first staged six years later.  In 1947, the duo also wrote “The Mother of Us All.” The opera was based on the life of a feminist leader Susan B. Anthony. In his last opera, “Lord Byron,” written in 1968, Thompson collaborated with Jack Larson who was an actor and a poet (Huizenda n.p).

Thompson decisively fought hard for the advancement of modern music. He was a vital part of American musical life for over half a century. While working as the chief music critic at New York Herald Tribune, the composer took 20th-century music back to its elementary roots at a time when musicians were adding more complexities in American music (Editors n,p). According to him, all it takes to write American music is to be an American. Asked about why he accepted the job at Herald Tribune, the music critic answered that the general standards of music reviewing in the New York had deteriorated, and there was a need for change (Editors n.p).

The musical critic, through his reviews, promoted music that is dependent on literary culture and historical knowledge in New York (Editors n.p). At the time of depression and wartime, classical music had achieved a lot of popularity. However, it failed to put down deep cultural roots. Thompson was vocal against the musical works he judged to have ignored the centrality of the American values. In his times also, professionalized and routinized performance, that valued fineness of execution, was also gaining popularity. He helped to develop a music life based on the force of expression. Additionally, according to Page (n.p), the critic also promoted moral content in music. Through his articles, he vehemently condemned vulgar and self-indulgent music.

At Herald Tribune, Thompson did not hesitate to speak his mind. He could plug his friends and allies without no apology. According to Page (n.p), he also, at times, savaged his enemies and philosophical opponents. In what is arguably impossible in today’s world, he went further to review performances of his own works. After his resignation, he engaged himself in composing projects including reviving his earlier compositions, conducting and writing books.