The Kennedy Center

Virgil Thomson


American composer Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City Missouri, on November 25, 1896, into a middle class family which always supported his musical ambitions. He began piano studies at age 5 and by age 12 served as organist for his local Baptist Church, as well as at other churches in the Kansas city area. He joined a National Guard Regiment in January of 1917, and ultimately was commissioned a lieutenant in the US Air force, but World War I ended before he was sent overseas.

After his military service ended in 1919 he went to Harvard University, where he studied music under several French-trained professors, one of whom, Foster Damon, introduced him to the work of Erik Satie, and the early writings of Gertrude Stein. In 1921 Thomson toured Europe with the Harvard Glee club, and stayed on in Paris for a year on a fellowship. While there he studied organ and composition with Nadia Boulanger, and met Jean Cocteau, and Erik Satie. Thomson returned to finish his studies at Harvard, and served as organist and choirmaster at Boston's King's Chapel. He continued his advanced studies in composition at the Juilliard School in New York,  after which he returned to Paris, where he lived the life of the Paris Bohemian for the next 15 years, until the German occupation forced him to return to his homeland. While in Paris he developed a close relationship with Gertrude Stein, and set a number of her writings to music. She provided the libretto for Thomson's most successful and best known work, the opera "Four Saints In Three Acts". Stein also wrote the libretto for Thomson's other well known opera "The Mother Of Us All", based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

After his return to the US in 1940 Thomson was hired as the permanent music critic at the New York Herald, where he wrote sharp witted, and often brutal reviews of musical performances on New York stages. He is perhaps best remembered as a music critic and author rather than as a composer, although his musical writing was prodigious, and included works for almost every musical genre, as well scores for Hollywood films. He was awarded numerous prizes and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Brandeis Award, Kennedy Center Honors and 20 honorary doctorates. He had a profound influence on younger composers such as John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Glass, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison.

He left the New York Herald in 1954. He never married, and lived from the time of his return from Paris in New York's Chelsea Hotel.  He died in New York city on September 30, 1989, at the age of 93.
Virgil Thomson