Virgil Thomson: A Personal Reminiscence

Although primarily known as a composer, Virgil Thomson was also one of the finest writers about music our country has produced. From 1940 to 1954, he was chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune; his reviews and columns from that newspaper have recently been reissued in a comprehensive collection edited by Tim Page.

As a graduate student, I spent several days one summer chauffeuring and generally looking after Mr. Thomson while he was teaching at a workshop for aspiring critics. I had been told that he was famous for nodding off during concerts; indeed, the sight of him sound asleep as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra let loose one of its trademark fortissimos remains an unforgettable image. When he awoke, he turned to me and cheerfully asked, “Did I miss anything?”

Even more memorable were his scathing evaluations of the young critics’ reviews. He detested clichés--he called them “bromides”--and insisted that adjectives be used with laser beam specificity. If one of the students said that a performance was “terrific,” “splendid,” or “marvelous,” she had better know the precise Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word or risk a withering rebuke. In his prose, as in his music, Mr. Thomson sought clarity and elegance; I dare not imagine what he would make of a world in which the construction “I’m like” is considered an acceptable substitute for “I said.”

Photo Credit: Scott Unrein

Photo Credit: Scott Unrein

Years later, I found myself in Kansas City, Mr. Thomson’s birthplace, and, on a bright, cold February day, I made the two hour drive to Slater, Missouri, his ancestral home. I stood by his grave in a tiny rural cemetery, while across the road at a well-kept farm, livestock roamed against a beautiful backdrop of spacious, rolling Midwestern hills. The open fifths that begin his Symphony on a Hymn Tune suddenly made all the sense in the world.




Virgil Thomson, Symphony on a Hymn Tune | Eastman-Rochester Orchestra | Howard Hanson, conductor