The Kennedy Center

Virgil Thomson


Virgil Thomson
(composer, born November 25, 1896, Kansas City, Missouri; died September 30, 1989)

Virgil Thomson, an innovative American composer and respected music critic, was born on Nov. 25, 1896, in Kansas City, MO. Thomson started studying the piano at the age of five, and took up the organ at 13. In 1915, he went to a junior college, then entered Harvard University in 1919. There, he studied orchestration and French music with Edward Burlingame Hill; was an assistant and accompanist for Archibald Davison; and learned about the work of Gertude Stein, with whom he later collaborated, from S. Foster Damon. It was also during this period that Thomson began to compose.

In 1921, Thomson traveled to Paris with the Harvard Glee Club and remained for a year under a traveling fellowship. He continued his studies there with Boulanger. In addition, Thomson wrote his first musical critiques, music reviews for the Boston Evening Transcript. When Thomson returned to America, he became the organist and choirmaster at King's Chapel in Boston.  He graduated from Harvard in 1923, then, with a grant from the Juilliard Graduate School, moved to New York and studied conducting with Chalmers Clifton and counterpoint with Rosario Scalero.

In 1925, Thomson returned to Paris, where he lived until 1940. In 1926, he composed four organ pieces, Variations on Sunday School Tunes and his first symphony, Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Thomson also met Stein that year and composed setting of two of her texts, Preciosilla and Capital Capitals. The two artists also collaborated on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), which is Thomson's most famous composition. Thomson next turned to writing for string instruments and produced the Violin Sonata and the two string quartets among about 100 others. In the late 1930s, Thomson's music took a nationalistic turn with his film scores, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, and the dance score, Filling Station.

In 1940, Thomson became the chief music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, a position he held for 14 years. His newspaper stories became the basis for four anthologies: The Musical Scene, The Art of Judging Music, Music Right and Left, and Music Reviewed, 1940 - 1954. His reviews were also collected in four books: his autobiography, Virgil Thomson (1966); American Music Since 1910 (1971); The Virgil Thomson Reader (1981), which won the National Book Critic Circles Award; and Selected Letters (1988). 

While serving as a music critic, Thomson continued to compose. He wrote another opera to a Stein piece, The Mother of Us All (1947), as well as the score to another documentary film, Louisiana Story, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

Though Thomson resigned from his position at the New York Herald Tribune in 1954, he continued to write music critiques, primarily for the New York Review of Books, conduct, and lecture, according to the New York Times.

Thomson received numerous awards for his work, including the Pulitzer Prize, a Brandeis Award, the gold medal for music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Book Critics Circle Award, Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, French Legion of Honor, and 20 honorary doctorates.

Thomson died in on Sept. 30, 1989, in New York City  after suffering from declining health.

Thomson's legacy includes a unique body of music that is based on American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony. Additionally, he was one of the primary music critics in America.
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