[Anthony] Tommasini's [Biography of Virgil] Thomson: Composer & Critic, Having It Both Ways
Reviewed by Leonard J. Lehrman,
for Aufbau and The Opera Journal 10/18/97 1258 words
AUFBAU 63:22 Oct. 24, 1997 p13
THE OPERA JOURNAL 30:4 Dec. 1997 pp47-49 Review of Virgil Thomson : Composer on the Aisle by Anthony Tommasini, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997; 605 + xiii pp.
Oct. 18, 1997
In 1988, the great music critic and pioneering American composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) looked back on a letter he had written about Gustav Mahler forty-six years earlier: "He was not an ambitious man. No man of talent is." "What rubbish!" he commented on his own writing, and changed the original to read, in the published collection of his letters: "He was an ambitious man, of course; every man of talent is." (Tommasini, p. 550-551)
Perhaps Anthony Tommasini, the most articulate, socially- and historically-conscious critic now writing for The New York Times, will one day change his mind about one of his own philosophical dicta, that "loyalty and originality are usually incompatible." (p.448) For the younger critic, who was a prized and appreciative mentee of the older one in his last years, has written a loyal, yet original portrait of a man who was, as the London Times correctly called him as far back as 1959, "a part of social history." (p.449n28)
Amid the searing economic analysis contained in his 1939 book The State of Music, outlining, among other chapter headings, "Who Does What To Whom and Who Gets Paid," Thomson wrote of himself: "At Harvard, and among the Nadia Boulanger coterie in Paris, I am considered a graceless whelp, a frivolous mountebank, an unfair competitor, and a dangerous character."
Asked about this in a taped interview I conducted with him 31 years later, he moped: "Harvard doesn't do much about me. Not much. O boy! ...if you consider my normal prestige, fame, experience - the works - what the career amounts to, plus the fact that of course I'm a perfectly honorable Harvard man - never got into any trouble there - it'll be up to them to explain the systematic... [pause] Q: Exclusion of your works?
A: And me!"
(A transcript of that interview has just been made available on the internet at http://freespace.virgin.net/john.jansson)
Yet even many of those closest to him shared the opinion of Tommasini's late "beloved friend" Allan Stinson, who had become Thomson's assistant on Tommasini's recommendation, and wrote just weeks after Thomson's death on September 30, 1989: "I don't think V.T. has been cheated of any recognition he was due, ignored or short-changed in any form in his life. He had a life of uncommon advantages and it is just brattish whining to feel the world owed him more attention than he got." (p.558-9)
And whine he did, about young musicians who seemed to feel that "the world owes them a living," yet refusing to apply his own wellarticulated criteria on the art of judging music (the ability of a work to hold attention, be remembered vividly, and possess "a certain strangeness in the musical texture") to his own work. Writing for the magazine Modern Music, and later as the New York Herald Tribune's music critic, he pushed and pushed for his own work to be performed and then, once he gave up his powerful position, was surprised that his performances decreased instead of increasing.
Stinson expressed "some sympathy for his music, especially the operas. They are child actresses who can't get work because no one wants to put up with their stage mother." Particularly at the end of his life, when deafness destroyed his ability to hear pitches, Thomson was often somewhat unhelpful at rehearsals. Yet he remains the most articulate critic of the century, the winner of the only Pulitzer Prize ever given for a film score (Louisiana Story, which in retrospect is a rather positive piece of propaganda for Standard Oil), and the composer of numerous songs, instrumental "portraits," and three important operas.
Tommasini devotedly recounts the backstage stories of the genesis and follow-up histories (both the writing and the reception) of all three of them, and how the composer was never completely satisfied, as revivals of Four Saints in Three Acts were (somewhat correctly) dismissed as "camp"; The Mother of Us All was recorded by an internationally renowned cast, conducted unevenly; and Lord Byron was commissioned for but then rejected by the Met.
Originally conceived as an intimate chamber opera with librettist Jack Larson, but then blown up grandiosely to accommodate the ultimately inhospitable Metropolitan Opera, Lord Byron is potentially, to this writer's way of thinking, perhaps the most valuable of the Thomson operas. Unlike the two earlier works with Gertrude Stein librettos, it actually makes sense. In 1928, according to John Cage, writing 28 years later, Thomson "received the revelation that 'Music makes no sense.'" It could be argued, however, that this credo is at least as much Cage as Thomson, and probably more so. Both, of course, are claimed as ancestors for the monotonously repetitive movement known as minimalism, for better or for worse.
Lord Byron deserves a scaled-down production, such as it received in 1990 with Richard Flusser's After Dinner Opera Company, one of a few important productions of Thomson's operas that goes unmentioned in this biography. A future edition of the book, if there is one, [might mention the opera's quoting the Harvard alma mater(!) and] should also correct the 18 typographical errors - including restoration of the three missing footnotes on p. 579, and include a family tree, a list of works and important performances, and a discography.
There is plenty here about the sex life of the subject, a closeted homosexual who feared public exposure - especially after being arrested in an FBI raid of a male brothel in Brooklyn in 1942. In many ways the book reminds one of Eric Gordon's massive 1989 biography of Marc Blitzstein (1906-1964), Mark the Music (also exactly 605 [+ xviii] pages), which highlighted its subject's love life, politics, and music, in that order.
Both its subjects, masterful wielders of both notes and words, were great admirers of Kurt Weill's works with Bertolt Brecht; both were (slightly patronizingly) eulogized by Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem; and neither made a great deal of money from their music, though Thomson managed to become a millionaire (and to endow a foundation that bears his name) largely from the sale of a few paintings near the end of his life.
Both books have cover photos of their subjects as dashing gay young men looking to the their left, with wry pictures of their unabashedly gay authors reflectingly looking to their right on the back flap. Both offer considerable sociological background on the ins and outs of music from the 1920s through the 1960s. Both are full of excellent photos of the subjects themselves and persons important to them at various stages in their lives. And both are written with great dedication and almost novelistic excitement. The author here, though, is blessed with much more knowledge from personal experience with the biographee, the milieu, and the music.
And Blitzstein was an uncompromising progressive. Thomson was a proudly unreconstructed plantation-mentality quasi-racist, occasionally slightly anti-Semitic as well, and a deliberately provocative, alternately cosmopolitan/down-home gadfly. Yet, while never losing sight of the importance of his own work as a composer, he brought to the task of criticism what his critical mentor at the Tribune Geoffrey Parsons called a "human understanding of the enormous difficulties involved in any musical composition or performance," and was able to exercise his prerogative, as Tommasini puts it, "that musical events would be reviewed according to their intrinsic merit, not the power of the publicity machine that promoted them." (p.339) It is a credo and a standard the author clearly attempts to follow as a model in his own criticism. We all should.
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