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Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle

About the Work

Virgil Thomson
Quick Look Composer: Virgil Thomson
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin conductor/Leonidas Kavakos, violin Feb. 3 - 5, 2005
© Richard Freed

Thomson adapted this piece in 1967 from his music for the 1945 John Houseman-Nicholas Ray short film Tuesday in November; the first performance was given on April 16, 1969, in Atlanta, by the Emory Chamber Orchestra under William Lemonds. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, cymbals, and strings. Duration, 6 minutes.

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Virgil Thomson's most frequently heard concert works are the suites derived from his film scores. Both The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) were documentaries directed by Pare Lorentz for the Farm Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Thomson drew a suite filled with folk tunes from each of these scores. Louisiana Story (1948) was “semi-documentary” directed by Robert Flaherty; the music Thomson composed for it was the first film score to win a Puilitzer Prize, and from it he extracted two separate suites. Between the Lorentz films and the Flaherty one, Thomson provided music for a short film produced by the Office of War Information in 1945 as an idealized report on the previous year's Presidential election, made to show the world that our democratic processes continue even in wartime. Tuesday in November, directed by John Houseman (Nicholas Ray was director of the animated sections), circulated to more than 60 countries, with dubbings of the narration in 22 languages. This time the composer waited more than twenty years to produce a concert piece from the score, and the one he produced is both conspicuously shorter and far less frequently performed than any of those mentioned earlier in this paragraph. Its subject material, however, is a great deal more familiar than anything in the other suites.

Yankee Doodle was without question the best-known patriotic music of our Revolutionary War—and it was played and sung by both sides: the British sang a derisive text, the Americans, of course, the upbeat words we know. No one has ever pinned down the authorship of either the words or the music, but over the years the tune has cropped up in concert works by several composers, among them Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Charles Ives and Morton Gould. Thomson's treatment, as the title implies, is a rather formal one, but the formality in no way delimits the infusion of humor which this sturdy and lovable old tune not only permits but seems to demand. (The film showed campaign bluster as well as idealism, and ended with a scene of an active and expectant crowd awaiting results at midnight in Times Square.)