Thomson, Virgil (Garnett)
- Anthony Tommasini
- and Richard Jackson
(b Kansas City, MO, Nov 25, 1896; d New York, NY, Sept 30, 1989). American composer and critic. He produced a sizeable catalog of stylistically diverse compositions characterized by expressive directness and textural transparency, written in a language that drew from hymnbook harmony, popular song, and dance idioms of the late 19th century, and utilizing plain-spoken tonal procedures but also diatonic dissonance and polytonal elements. In his many vocal works, and his two path-breaking operatic collaborations with Gertrude Stein, Thomson demonstrated a mastery of prosody. His settings of English convey American speech patterns with naturalness and clarity. He brought strong predilections for living composers and American music to his criticism. The wit, vitality, and descriptive precision of his writing, which demystified the complexities of music for lay readers, made him among the most influential and lasting critics of the 20th century.
1. Early years.
Though Thomson’s parents were not musical—his father, Quincy, had been a farmer and later secured a civil service job at a post office—there was plentiful music-making at the Thomson house in Kansas City. An older cousin, Lela Garnett, moved in with her upright piano when Thomson was a boy, and gave him his first lessons when he was five. For the rest of his life Thomson remembered evenings at the house with parlor songs, hymns and “darn-fool ditties” sung around the piano; an uncle’s banjo playing; and band concerts in the parks (where he heard excerpts from the Wagner operas for the first time). All of these American vernacular idioms would influence his mature musical style.
In 1909 he acquired a musical mentor in Robert Leigh Murray, a salesman at the local piano store who was also a tenor soloist at the Thomson family’s regular church, Calvary Baptist. Murray took Thomson to orchestra and chamber music concerts, including on trips to Chicago, recruited him as a song accompanist, and brought him into contact with some of the best teachers in Kansas City, especially Geneve Lichtenwalter, an Iowa native who had studied in Berlin and Paris. She impressed Thomson with the richness of her cultural background as well as the thoroughness of her musicianship. Murray also introduced Thomson to Clarence Sears, the organist at Grace Episcopal Church, who helped Thomson develop skills on the instrument. By 16, Thomson was a professional musician assisting Sears at the downtown church, work that began Thomson’s lifelong association with sacred music, though he was never a believer.
After graduating from Central High School (1908–13), Thomson entered Kansas City Polytechnic Institute, a new junior college, in 1915. By this time young Americans feared that sooner or later the United States would be drawn into the war in Europe, and the junior college offered pragmatic educational opportunities. There Thomson became close friends with Alice Smith, whose great-grandfather was the Mormon prophet and seer Joseph Smith. Years later, in a memoir piece she wrote for the Thomson biographer Kathleen Hoover, Alice Smith shared recollections of the young Thomson in his junior college days, who was already emerging as the intellectual bully and all-confident critic he would later become. Thomson, Smith wrote:
had even then a faculty of pungent criticism, which he used freely on other class members, and I came in for some of the earliest examples. His criticism was sometimes a little harsh, and was always delivered with a combination of omniscience and patronage that was hard to take; but it was usually just and well-deserved and no one ever hesitated to take it.
When America entered the war, Thomson enlisted in the army and served in a field artillery unit. He received training in aviation in Texas and radio telephony at Columbia University. Though he was slated for embarkation to France, his aimless, homebound military career ended after 16 months when the war concluded.
In August of 1919, going on 23, Thomson entered Harvard University. In later life he used to say that he chose Harvard because “that’s where all the money was.” He indeed received academic grants and fellowships while there, though he also earned his way by taking an organ job at Tremont Street Methodist Church near Boston Common. Determined to pass out of the foreign language requirement, he found an excellent private French tutor.
Thomson was profoundly influenced at Harvard by three teachers. One was edward burlingame Hill , a French-trained composer, who taught Thomson orchestration and introduced him to modern music, especially French works. Another was A(rchibald) T(hompson) Davison, also French-trained, a pioneering scholar of early music. Davison directed the Harvard Glee Club, which under his leadership was transformed from an ensemble that mostly sang football fight songs, college anthems, and breezy ballads accompanied by mandolins into a top-quality chorus performing Renaissance and early Baroque repertory then largely unknown. Thomson was the glee club accompanist and Davison’s assistant for three years.
Thomson was most influenced, however, by S. Foster Damon, a young instructor in freshman English, a “slender, pale poet with a blonde mustache,” as Thomson would recall in his autobiography. Then pursuing a master’s degree, Damon was an intellectual adventurer, a composer and musical scholar as well as a poet, who was drawn to modernists and visionaries in music and literature and was an early scholar of Blake. Damon introduced Thomson to the music of Erik Satie, whose music espoused ideals of clarity, directness, simplicity, and gently ironic humor, all attributes that would become central to Thomson’s style. Damon also introduced Thomson to Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” an early collection of her poems and writings, and a book that changed Thomson’s life.
Thomson began composing at Harvard in 1920. During the summer of 1921, the Harvard Glee Club toured Europe, with Thomson conducting occasional concerts. Thanks to a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, Thomson stayed in Paris for the 1921–2 academic year. There he studied counterpoint with nadia boulanger privately, and took organ lessons with her at the Ecole Normale. He also met Satie and the circle of young composers called Les Six, who fashioned themselves as Satie devotees and champions of inconsequence. While there he wrote his first published reviews, covering performances for the Boston Evening Transcript.
When he returned to Harvard, he became the organist and choirmaster at historic King’s Chapel in Boston and gave the first American performance of Satie’s “Socrate” with the Harvard Musical Club. Upon graduating from Harvard in 1923, he went to New York on a grant from the Juilliard Graduate School. He found conducting lessons with Chalmers Clifton especially valuable. But he was itching to return to Paris and did so in the fall of 1925. Except for extended periods when he had work to oversee in America, Thomson lived in Paris until 1940, when he took the job of chief music critic at the Herald Tribune.
His breakthrough work of this period, written in 1926, was “Sonata da Chiesa,” intentionally scored for five ill-matched instruments: viola, E♭; clarinet, D trumpet, horn, and trombone. With a chorale, tango, and fugue, paying mock-homage to Baroque idioms, the piece is outrageous and brilliant. The finale, which John Cage described as “a fugue to end fugues,” bustles with thick, skittish, ornery counterpoint. Thomson later called the score his “bang-up graduation piece in the dissonant style of the time,” by which he meant that in writing music so saturated with dissonance he proved he could do it and was now free to follow his instincts and simplify his style. This was the last work he submitted to his teacher Nadia Boulanger.
2. Gertrude Stein and Four Saints.
On an evening in January of 1926, accompanied by his friend and colleague the American composer George Antheil, Thomson went to 27, rue de Fleurus, the already legendary home of Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas. Though Stein did not find Antheil particularly interesting, she was intrigued by Thomson, who was steeped in her writings and spoke of them insightfully. As the young men started to leave, Stein pulled Thomson aside and said, “We’ll be seeing each other.” Thomson used to say that from their first meeting, he and Stein “got along like a couple of Harvard boys.”
They did not see each again, it turned out, until a holiday party at Stein’s that December. Their relationship was spurred when in early 1927, Thomson dropped off his first setting of a Stein text, “Susie Asado,” for voice and piano. In his 1966 autobiography, Thomson explained why the texts of Stein were so ideally suited to the musical aesthetic he was cultivating in the mid-1920s, and specifically his exploration of “English musical declamation,” or the art of prosody:
My theory was that if a text is set correctly for the sound of it, then the meaning would take care of itself. And the Stein texts, for prosodizing in this way, were manna. With meanings already abstracted, or absent, or so multiplied that choice among them was impossible, there was no temptation toward tonal illustration, say, of birdie babbling by the brook or heavy heavy hangs the heart. You could make a setting for sound and syntax only, then add, if needed, an accompaniment equally functional.
With “Susie Asado,” Thomson knew that he had opened a door. This short Stein poem would appear to be a portrait of a gracious hostess who serves sweet tea, and is herself a “sweet tea” (a sweetie). It is filled with seemingly hermetic lines: “Susie Asado which is a told tray sure” and “Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold,” and so on. Yet as activated by Thomson’s bare and minimal music (the vocal line is by turns declamatory, lyrical, and eerie; the piano part consists merely of a broken-triad patterns, some ascending scales in sevenths and ninths, and concluding chords of open fifths), Stein’s poem emerges as playful, direct, and haunting.
Thomson then set an even more obscure Stein text, “Preciosilla,” before turning to “Capital Capitals,” which Stein had written in 1923, a text of more than 3,000 words that evokes, as Thomson wrote, “Provence, its landscape, food, and people, as a conversation among the cities Aix, Arles, Avignon and Les Baux, here called Capitals One, Two, Three and Four.” Thomson fashioned it into a 17-minute mock-oratorical piece for four male singers and piano.
Soon talk between Thomson and Stein turned to writing an opera. The general subject they eventually settled upon was Spanish saints of the 16th century. But the text Stein wrote, which she finished in June, 1927, was seemingly hermetic, meandering and plotless with no scenes or discernible action. There are personal references in the text, including chatty digressions about domestic matters in the Stein/Toklas household (“What happened today, a narrative”) and what seem evocations of religious imagery, including the opening lines: “To know to know, to love her so./Four saints, prepare for saints./It makes it well fish.” The text vaguely suggests a community of saints, headed by St. Teresa and St. Ignatius, who go about daily rituals and exchange social pleasantries (“How do you do. Very well I thank you. And when do you go. I am staying on quite continuously.”) But the text as presented to Thomson seemed to have no fully developed characters.
Thrilled with Stein’s work, Thomson set to music every word of what became the libretto, even the stage directions. In composing his first opera, he sat for hours at his piano, saying the words aloud over and over until the musical contours, shapes, and rhythms almost suggested themselves. The score he wrote is wondrously direct and water-clear. He decided to divide St. Teresa’s lines into parts for two female singers, St. Teresa I and II, so that she could sing duets with herself. The score he finally wrote was an eclectic mix of hurdy-gurdy waltzes, oom-pahs, chorales for chorus, minor-key lyrical exchanges, and whole passages set in quasi-modal declamations—a personal style Thomson later called “Missouri plainchant.”
He finished the piano-vocal score in 1928. Though pleased, he still had no real idea what the opera was about or how to mount it on stage. For help he turned to his younger friend Maurice Grosser, an artist then studying in Paris on a fellowship from Harvard, where he had been a member, like Thomson, of the Liberal Club. It was not until they were reacquainted in Paris that Thomson and Grosser, born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1903, became close friends and began a romantic relationship.
For his whole life Thomson took a two-track attitude toward his homosexuality. Within circles of gay men (“queer” was Thomson’s term of choice) he was jocular, flirtatious, and free. But in the public sphere and in mixed company with women he was tight-lipped and closeted. For several decades, Grosser was the closest Thomson had to a lifelong partner.
Grosser, who was an astute reader of Stein and insightful about Thomson’s music, more or less made up a story for Four Saints in Three Acts and imposed a scenario of scenes and actions on the finished words and music. It would not be until 1934 that the opera had a sensational premiere at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, followed by a six-week run on Broadway, a ground-breaking production, produced and directed by John Houseman, that featured an all-black cast, sets and costumes by Florine Stettheimer and choreography by Frederick Ashton. It was the necessity of making contractual arrangements for the production that compelled Thomson and Stein to mend a quarrel that disrupted their friendship in early 1931.
In 1928, the year Thomson finished Four Saints, he completed another breakthrough work, Symphony on a Hymn Tune, which he had been struggling to compose for several years. The germinal idea of writing a symphony that used Protestant hymn tunes as thematic materials had come to him at Harvard. But it was the liberating impact of Dada that emboldened Thomson to go against his academic training and freely draw upon long-inhibited sources of inspiration, however incongruous.
This four-movement work uses “How Firm a Foundation” and “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” two hymns Thomson grew up with, as thematic material. Mostly the tunes are milked for motivic ideas. There are echoes of the Renaissance music Thomson sang with the Harvard Glee Club, proper four-part chorales, hints of ditties and waltzes, fractured marches and free-wheeling counterpoint. Yet Thomson found a way to make each event sound as if it were evolving compellingly, if not logically, from the previous one.
It would take nearly 17 years for the piece to have its first performance, by the New York Philharmonic in 1945. But in 1928, the pianist John Kirkpatrick made a four-hand piano arrangement of the symphony, and in that form it traveled within musical circles and had a strong impact on, among others, Aaron Copland, who was inspired by the directness and seeming simplicity of Thomson’s musical language.
3. The premiere of Four Saints.
A. Everett Austin Jr., four years younger than Thomson and a classmate from Harvard, was the hero behind the 1934 production of Four Saints. Austin had become the visionary director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford and believed that a museum should be not just a repository for art works but a vibrant cultural center. He screened films, threw costume balls, presented a pioneering exhibit of surrealism, and produced concerts sponsored by a group of patrons called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. He convinced his board to build a new wing for contemporary art. In a bold departure, this wing included a small theater with a pit. In February of 1934 the theater was inaugurated with Four Saints.
Thomson had had the idea to cast his opera exclusively with African American singers. His reasons were rife with generalizations about black people that could have been construed as racial stereotyping: black people spoke and sang English clearly, he said, and were not afraid of religious subject matter. But the black artists and choristers Thomson recruited, mostly in Harlem, were thrilled to be part of a theatrical production where for once they portrayed elegant saints not the typical servants and laborers.
The premiere attracted the smart set of art patrons, fanciers of the avant garde and the curious. After the triumphant Hartford run, the production moved to Broadway where it played for six weeks at first one then another theater, a breakthrough for an opera. This was a year before Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was also conducted by Alexander Smallens and featured a black cast.
Decades later, Philip Glass would cite Four Saints as the most important model that he and Robert Wilson had when they embarked on writing avant-garde operas. But Four Saints also provoked animosity within the realm of contemporary American composers who were pursuing complex musical languages. Roger Sessions was particularly hostile. Thomson’s younger colleague Theodore Chanler attended the New York premiere and reviewed it negatively for the journal Modern Music, provoking a break of several years with Thomson. In 1948, in a letter to Thomson’s biographer Kathleen Hoover, Chanler explained that at the time he was under the sway of Sessions’s “remarkable mind.” When Chanler expressed his enthusiasm for the Thomson/Stein opera to Sessions, Chanler related, Sessions “simply pulverized me with scorn and indignation at having dared like it.”
During the 1930s, mostly due to government funding that became available through the New Deal’s WPA projects supporting the arts, Thomson spent many months in New York working on theater productions and films. These included the 1936 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, presented by the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Theater Unit, performed by an African American cast, and directed by the young Orson Welles, who set the play on an island that could have been Haiti at the time of black emperor Jean Christophe, with soldiers bedecked with epaulets and the witches portrayed as voodoo priestesses. Thomson wrote incidental music, working with a group of African drummers. Thomson also wrote scores for two landmark documentary films in support of the New Deal, backed with government funding and directed by Pare Lorentz: The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River.
4. A critic’s life.
Throughout this decade, while in Paris Thomson wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, particularly the journal Modern Music. Approached to write a book by the Thayer Hobson publishing house, Thomson proposed, as he explained in a letter to a friend, a “complete account of the musical world (no less)” that would include “esthetics, economics, politics, and even some technical matters, the whole show in fact from pedagogy to opera and movies, including the business politics of symphony orchestras and an exposé of the pseudo-educational rackets.” He kept his word in the book he wrote, The State of Music, released in 1939, which uses principles of economic determinism to explain how the world of music worked, with chapter titles like “Who does what to whom and who gets paid.”
The book impressed Geoffrey Parsons, then the editorial page editor of the New York Herald Tribune, who also informally oversaw the arts coverage for the paper. By 1940, Paris in wartime was a risky place to live. Thomson was intrigued by the opportunity a prominent critic’s post offered, as he would later put it in his autobiography, to:
expose the philanthropic persons in control of our musical institutions for the amateurs they are, to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit makers that indeed they are, and to support with all the power of my praise every artist, composer, group, or impresario whose relation to music was straightforward, by which I mean based only on music and the sound it makes.
Thomson moved to New York and took an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, eventually relocating upstairs to a larger apartment that he lived in until his death. At the Herald Tribune he became an unabashed champion of contemporary music and sought to correct the balance of power within the field, which, as he saw things, was weighted to European culture and to star performers, especially conductors, at the expense of American music and living composers. Musical polemics were his clear intent, he often said. And why, he asked rhetorically in his memoir, did a daily paper tolerate his polemics for 14 years? “Simply because,” he wrote, “they were accompanied by musical descriptions more precise than those being used just then by other reviewers.”
His reviews were models for lucid and evocative descriptions of music. As much as possible, he avoided technical jargon in favor of everyday and vivid imagery. Describing the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he wrote: “Nowhere else is there such a string choir; one would like to stroke its tone, as if the suavity of it were a visual and tactile thing, like pale pinky-brown velvet.” “Live music,” meaning music by living composers, “speaks to us.” he wrote, adding: “We may not like what it says, but it does speak.” “Dead music,” by contrast, “is as comfortable and as solacing to mental inactivity as a lullaby heard on a pillow made from the down of a defunct swan.”
Thomson did not disguise his agenda in his reviews. That his work had literary distinction, bracing intellectual content and abundant wit won over even readers who disagreed with him. For his assistants and stringers, Thomson hired only active composers, including Arthur Berger, Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, reasoning that composers understood music from the inside.
5..The Mother of Us All
Still, today it is hard to imagine how such a major critic was able blithely to operate in ways that openly flouted conflict of interest guidelines. While he was the chief critic at the Herald Tribute Thomson continued to compose, publish, conduct, and promote his own music. Among the many works he wrote during this period was his second opera with Stein, The Mother of Us All, the last writing she completed before her death in 1946.
This opera, which tells of the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, is much more comprehensible than Four Saints in Three Acts. A panoply of historical characters who did not live at the same time are in it, including Daniel Webster, Lillian Russell, John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thaddeus Stevens. Friends of Thomson’s also show up, as well as two characters called Gertrude S. and Virgil T., who serve as hostess and host for this historical pageant of an opera. Still, the story of Anthony’s struggles to obtain the vote for women comes through in a score evocative of marches, fanfares, bugle calls, 19th-century band concerts, and lyrically tender exchanges.
It had its première at Columbia University’s Brander Matthews Theater in 1947, and over time became Thomson’s most performed work. In a 1984 column for the New Yorker, the critic Andrew Porter wrote that every time he hears The Mother of Us All he is “tempted to consider it the best of all American operas” and, on calm reflection, would “hardly modify that beyond ‘one of the three best.’”
Thomson also won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize in Music while a critic at the Herald Tribune. The award went to his music for the Robert Flaherty film Louisiana Story. That this was (and at this writing remains) the only time the Pulitzer in music had been given to film music was a point of pride for Thomson.
His decision to leave the Herald Tribune in 1954 was partly motivated by the increasing busyness of his musical career, which included guest conducting appearances and numerous commissions. Some of these opportunities had come from institutions trying to cull his favor. When he retired from the paper, the invitations fell off noticeably.
6. Musical style and portraiture.
Asked in 1977 by the critic John Rockwell whether his music had suffered from a prejudice built up by the more cerebral composers of the decades following World War II, Thomson said it had suffered even in earlier times, beginning in the 1920s when he started writing simply. He explained that from that period onward, he tried to write as things came into his head rather than with any preoccupation of trying to make his music stylish and up to date.
Thomson’s music aims to achieve a radical simplicity. When it works, as in Susie Asado, or the Gertrude Stein operas, or the exhilarating Symphony on a Hymn Tune, Thomson’s music sounds both simple, meaning direct and clear, and radical. When it does not work, as in some of his chamber and piano pieces that closely hew to diatonic procedures, Thomson’s music sounds not radically simple, just simple.
Thomson’s desire to practice what he called the “discipline of spontaneity” in his composing led him to one of his more unusual experiments: his life-long preoccupation with writing musical portraits of people. He began making such portraits in Paris in 1928, inspired by the example of Stein, who wrote free-association word portraits of friends and acquaintances. He was also inspired by the many painters he knew, who made portraits all the time. The first six portraits, scored for solo violin, were the products of Thomson’s reflections on his subjects. But starting with the seventh, a portrait of the composer Henri Sauguet, also for solo violin, Thomson began composing portraits from life, in the presence of the sitter, just as painters do.
He composed some 150 portraits during his life, ranging from short piano miniatures to a full-fledged Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp, and Percussion (a portrait of his friend and then-lover Roger Baker, a painter, which was composed from life over a span of several days in 1954). Thomson did portraits of numerous friends and colleagues, including Stein, Toklas, Picasso, Copland, Grosser, and Paul and Jane Bowles. He also composed portraits on commission, including The Mayor LaGuardia Waltzes, a portrait for orchestra, composed in the mayor’s office at City Hall, while LaGuardia was running the affairs of New York. That the portraits came out so musically quirky and distinctive, Thomson always said, was his circumstantial evidence that they were indeed portraits of their subjects.
7. Later life.
Thomson' third and final opera was Lord Byron, with a libretto by the American poet, playwright, and actor Jack Larson, who will always be known best for his first career: during the 1950s he played Jimmy Olsen on the television series “The Adventures of Superman”. Thomson and Larson worked on the project for seven years. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned it and tried out scenes in a 1969 private performance for invited guests in a studio at the Met with just piano accompaniment. Rudolf Bing, the general manager at the time, was not enthusiastic. Thomson accepted an offer from the Juilliard School to present the première, which took place there in 1972, and met with a mixed reception. That Lord Byron, his most ambitious work, was not a success was the greatest disappointment of Thomson’s career. He revised the score, trimmed it, and fashioned its three acts into two. But this actually undermined the flow and continuity of the music.
Lord Byron has strong champions, including the scholar Richard Jackson, who wrote in an entry for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986) that the opera has “a seriousness of tone, a comparative richness of texture, and a lyrical expansiveness seldom encountered” in Thomson’s earlier works. With its emotional content, he added, the opera “rises to moments of real passion.”
In later life, Thomson held court at his Chelsea Hotel flat, receiving young composers and fledging critics, and serving elegant dinners in his cramped dining room, which doubled as his office. He died at 92 just the way he had hoped he would: at home, in his sleep, and in time for his obituary to make all editions of the Sunday New York Times.
Portraits for Piano Solo: Album 1 (New York, 1948) [P1]
Portraits for Piano Solo: Album 2 (New York, 1949) [P2]
Portraits for Piano Solo: Album 3 (New York, 1950) [P3]
Portraits for Piano Solo: Album 4 (New York, 1953) [P4]
Nine Portraits for Piano Solo (New York, 1974) [P5]
Thirteen Portraits for Piano Solo (New York, 1981) [P6]
Nineteen Portraits for Piano Solo (New York, 1983) [P7]
Portraits whose full titles have the form ‘[title]: a Portrait of [subject]’ are listed below in the form ‘[title] … [subject]’.
Four Saints in Three Acts (G. Stein), 1927–8, orchd 1933, critical edition, eds. H. W. Hitchcock and C. Fussell, 1988; Hartford, CT, 8 Feb 1934, cond. Smallens; arr. with pf; Saints’ Procession arr. SATB, pf, arr. TTBB, pf, unpubd; Pigeons on the Grass Alas arr. Bar, pf, 1934, arr. Bar, orch, 1934, unpubd
The Mother of us all (Stein), 1947, unpubd; New York, 7 May 1947, cond. Luening; arr. with pf
Lord Byron (J. Larson), 1961–8, unpubd; New York, 20 April 1972, cond. G. Samuel; arr. with pf; ballet from Act 3 pubd as Sym. no.3
Filling Station (L. Christensen), 1937, unpubd; New York, 18 Feb 1958, cond. E. Schenkman; arr. pf Hartford, CT, 6 Jan 1938; arr. orch suite
The Harvest According (De Mille), 1952, unpubd; New York, 1 Oct 1952, cond. Thomson [arr. from Sym. on a Hymn Tune, Vc Conc. and Suite from The Mother of us all]
Parson Weems and the Cherry Tree (E. Hawkins), 1975; Amherst, MA, 1 Nov 1975; arr. pf
Orchestral and band
Two Sentimental Tangos, 1923, unpubd [arr. of pf piece]
Sym. on a Hymn Tune, 1928
Sym. no.2, 1931, rev. 1941 [arr. of Pf Sonata no.1], arr. pf 4 hands, 1932, unpubd
The Plow that Broke the Plains, suite, 1936 [from film score], arr. pf
The River, suite [from film score], 1937
Filling Station, suite, 1937 [from ballet], unpubd, arr. pf
Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle, suite, 1945 [from film score Tuesday in November]
The Seine at Night, 1947
Acadian Songs and Dances, 1948 [from film score Louisiana Story]; by Balanchine as Bayou, 1952
Louisiana Story, suite, 1948 [from film score]
Wheat Field at Noon, 1948
At the Beach, concert waltz, tpt, band, 1949 [arr. of Le bains-bar, vn, pf]
The Mother of us all, suite, 1949, unpubd
A Solemn Music, band, 1949, arr. orch, 1961
Vc Conc., 1950, unpubd, arr. vc, pf
Sea Piece with Birds, 1952
11 Chorale Preludes, 1956 [arr. Brahms: op.122]
The Lively Arts Fugue, 1957, unpubd
Fugues and Cantilenas, 1959 [from film score Power among Men]
A Joyful Fugue, 1962, arr. band
Autumn, concertino, harp, str, perc, 1964 [arr. of Homage to Marya Freund and to the Harp, and Pf Sonata no.2]
Pilgrims and Pioneers, 1964, arr. band [from film score Journey to America]
Ode to the Wonders of Nature, brass, perc, 1965
Fantasy in Homage to an Earlier England, 1966
Sym. no.3, 1972, arr. pf as Ballet from Lord Byron, unpubd [arr. of Str Qt no.2]
Thoughts for Str, 1981
arrangements of piano pieces where noted; unpublished unless otherwise stated
The John Moser Waltzes, 1935, orchd 1937
Meditation … Jere Abbott, 1935, orchd 1944
Bugles and Birds … Pablo Picasso, 1940, orchd 1944
Cantabile for Str … Nicolas de Chatelain, 1940, orchd 1944, pubd
Fanfare for France … Max Kahn, 1940, arr. ww 1944, pubd
Fugue … Alexander Smallens, 1940, orchd 1944
Tango Lullaby … Mlle [Flavie] Alvarez de Toledo, 1940, orchd 1944, pubd
Percussion Piece … Jessie K. Lasell, 1941, orchd 1944
Insistences … Louise Crane, 1941, arr. band as Study Piece: Portrait of a Lady, 1969
Parades … Florine Stettheimer, 1941, arr. brass, perc as Metropolitan Museum Fanfare: Portrait of an American Artist, 1969
Canons for Dorothy Thompson, 1942
The Mayor LaGuardia Waltzes, 1942
Aaron Copland, Persistently Pastoral, 1942, orchd as Pastorale, 1944
Concerto … Roger Baker, fl, harp, str, perc, 1954; arr. fl, pf
Edges … Robert Indiana, 1966, arr. band, 1969
Dead Pan: Mrs. Betty Freeman, 1981, orchd as A Love Scene, 1982
Intensely Two: Karen Brown Waltuck, 1981, orchd 1982
Loyal, Steady, and Persistent: Noah Creshevsky, 1981, orchd 1982
Something of a Beauty: Anne-Marie Soullière, 1981, orchd 1982
David Dubal in Flight, 1982, orchd 1982
Major Chords, orig. Tony Tommasini, 1984, orch 1984
Fête polonais, TTBB, pf, 1924, unpubd [arr. Chabrier] Capital Capitals (G. Stein), 4 male vv, pf, 1927, rev. 1968
Mass, 2vv, 1934
7 Choruses from the Medea of Euripides (trans. C. Cullen), SSAA, perc, 1934
The Bugle Song (A. Tennyson), unison children’s, vv, pf, 1941, arr. 2 vv, unpubd
Welcome to the New Year (E. Farjeon), 2vv, children pf, 1941, arr. SATB, pf, unpubd
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (W. Whitman), SSATB, pf, 1958, arr. SATB, orch, 1961, unpubd
Missa pro defunctis (Requiem Mass), double chorus, orch, 1960, vs pubd
Dance in Praise (Gaudeamus igitur, trans. J. Symonds), SATB, 1962, unpubd
5 Auvergnat Folk Songs, SATB, pf, 1962, orchd 1964
When I survey the bright celestial sphere (W. Habbingdon), unison vv, org/pf, 1964
The Nativity as Sung by the Shepherds (R. Crashaw), A, T, B, SATB, orch, 1966–7, unpubd, arr. with pf acc
Cant. on Poems of Edward Lear, S, 2 Bar, SATB, pf, 1973, rev. 1974
orchd, unpubd, The Peace Place (J. Larson), SATB, pf, 1979, rev. as Fanfare for Peace, SATB, pf, 1983, arr. with brass, unpubd
A Prayer to Venus (J. Fletcher), SATB, pf, 1981
Cantantes eamus (Virgil), TTBB, pf, 1982, arr. with brass
Southern Hymns, SATB, pf, 1984
De profundis (Ps xxx), SATB, 1920, rev. 1951
O my Deir Hart, SATB, 1921, rev. 1978
Sanctus, TTBB, 1921, unpubd
Tribulationes civitatum, SATB, 1922, arr. TTBB, unpubd
3 Antiphonal Psalms (Ps cxxiii, cxxxiii, cxxxvi), SA/TB, 1922–4
Agnus Dei, 3 equal vv, 1924, unpubd
Missa brevis, TTBB, 1924, unpubd
Agnus Dei, TTBB, 1925, unpubd
Benedictus, TTBB, 1926, unpubd
Sanctus, TTBB, children’s vv, 1926, unpubd
My shepherd will supply my need (I. Watts, after Ps xxiii), SATB, 1937, pubd in various choral arrs., arr. lv, pf, 1959
Scenes from the Holy Infancy According to St Matthew, T, Bar, B, SATB, 1937
Surrey Apple-Howler’s Song, round, children’s vv, 1941
Hymns from the Old South, SATB/SSA, 1949
Kyrie eleison, SATB, 1953, incl. in Missa pro defunctis
Never Another (M. Van Doren), SATB, 1955, pubd as Praise him who makes us happy
Song for the Stable (A.B. Hall), SATB, 1955, pubd as It seems that God bestowed somehow
How will ye have your partridge today (N. Brown), round, 4vv, 1967, unpubd
Hymn for Pratt Institute (R. Fjelde), SATB, 1968, unpubd
5 Songs from William Blake, Bar, orch, 1951, unpubd, arr. with pf, no.2 arr. SATB, pf, 1955, unpubd, arr. TTBB, pf, 1955
Collected Poems (K. Koch), S, Bar, orch, 1959, unpubd, arr. with pf
The Feast of Love (from Pervigilium veneris, trans. Thomson), Bar, orch, 1964, arr. with pf, unpubd
From Byron’s Don Juan, T, orch, 1967, unpubd
5 Phrases from The Song of Solomon, S, perc, 1926
Stabat mater (M. Jacob), S, str qt. 1931, rev. 1981, arr. S, str orch, unpubd, arr. 1v, pf, 1960
4 Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion, Mez, cl, va, harp, 1951, arr. Mez, pf, arr. SATB, pf, 1955
The Sunflower (W. Blake), 1920, unpubd
Vernal Equinox (A. Lowell), 1920, unpubd
3 Sentences from The Song of Solomon, 1924, unpubd
Susie Asado (Stein), 1926
The Tiger (Blake), 1926
Preciosilla (Stein), 1927
La valse grégorienne (G. Hugnet), 1927, rev. 1971
Le berceau de Gertrude Stein, ou Le mystère de la rue de Fleurus (Hugnet), 1928
Commentaire sur St Jérome (Marquis de Sade), 1928
Les soirées bagnolaises (Hugnet), 1928, unpubd
3 poèmes de la Duchesse de Rohan, 1928
Portrait of F.B. [Frances Blood] (Stein), 1929
Air de Phèdre (J. Racine), 1930
Film: 2 soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs (Stein), 1930
Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de France, Reine de la Grande-Bretagne (J. Bossuet), 1930, rev. 1934, unpubd
Le singe et le léopard (J. de La Fontaine), 1930
La belle en dormant (Hugnet), 1931
Chamber Music (A. Kreymborg), 1931, unpubd
Dirge (J. Webster), 1939
At the Spring (J. Fisher), 1955
The Bell doth Toll (T. Heywood), 1955
Consider, Lord (J. Donne), 1955
The Holly and the Ivy (anon. 1557), 1955, unpubd, arr. SATB, pf, 1963
If thou a reason dost desire to know (F. Kynaston), 1955, 1958
John Peel (J.W. Graves), 1955
Look, how the floor of heav’n (W. Shakespeare), 1955
Remember Adam’s Fall (15th cent.), 1955
 Shakespeare Songs, 1956–7
3 estampas de Niñez (R. Rivas), 1957
Mostly about Love ( Songs for Alice Estey) (K. Koch), 1959
Mass, 1v/unison vv, pf, 1960, orchd 1962, unpubd
 Praises and Prayers, 1963, no.2 arr. SATB/SSA, pf, 1963
2 by Marianne Moore, 1963
From Sneden’s Landing Variations (F. O’Hara), 1972, unpubd
The Courtship of the Yongly Bongly Bo (E. Lear), 1973–4 [from Cant. on Poems of Edward Lear]
What is it? (T. Campion), 1v, pf/gui, 1979
The Cat (Larson), S, Bar, pf, 1980
Go to Sleep, Alexander Smallens jr, 1935, unpubd
Go to Sleep, Pare McTaggett Lorentz, 1937, unpubd
Go to Sleep, Gabriel Liebowitz, 1979, unpubd
Portraits for Violin Alone, 1928–1940: 1 Señorita Juanita de Medina accompanied by her Mother, 2 Madame Marthe-Marthine, 3 Georges Hugnet, Poet and Man of Letters, 4 Miss Gertrude Stein as a Young Girl, 5 Cliquet-Pleyel in F, 6 Mrs. C.W.L. [Chester Whitin Lasell], 7 Sauguet, from Life, 8 Ruth Smallens
Five Portraits for Four Clarinets, 2 cl, a cl, b cl, 1929: 1 Portrait of Ladies: a Conversation, 2 Portrait of a Young Man in Good Health: Maurice Grosser with a Cold, 3 Christian Bérard, Prisoner, 4 Christian Bérard as a Soldier, 5 Christian Bérard in Person
Portraits for Violin and Piano, 1930–40: 1 Alice Toklas, 2 Mary Reynolds, 3 Anne Miracle, 4 Yvonne de Casa Fuerte; pubd with Cynthia Kemper, a Fanfare, 1983, as Five Ladies
Barcarolle for Woodwinds (A Portrait of Georges Hugnet), fl, ob, eng hn, cl, b cl, bn, 1944 [arr. of pf piece, 1940]
Etude for Cello and Piano … Frederic James, 1966, unpubd
Family Portrait, 2 tpt, hn, 2 trbn, 1974: 1 A Fanfare: Robin Smith, 2 At 14: Annie Barnard, 3 A Portrait of Howard Rea, 4 Scherzo: Priscilla Rea, 5 Man of Iron, Willy Eisenhart [no.5 arr. pf piece, 1972]
Lili Hasings, vn, pf, 1983, unpubd
A Portrait of Two [Joelle Amar, Benjamin Zifkin], 1984, unpubd
Jay Rosen: Portrait and Fugue, b tuba, pf, 1984–5, unpubd
Sonata da chiesa, cl, tpt, hn, trbn, va, 1926, rev. 1973
Le bains-bar, vn, pf, 1929, unpubd, arr. 2 vn, vc, db, pf, unpubd, arr. tpt, pf as At the Beach, 1949, arr. tpt, band
Vn Sonata, 1930
Serenade, fl, vn, 1931
Str Qt no.1, 1931, rev. 1957
Str Qt no.2, 1932, rev. 1957, orchd as Sym. no.3
Sonata, fl, 1943
Sonorous and Exquisite Corpses, c1945, collab. Cowell, Cage, Harrison, arr. R. Hughes as Party Pieces, 4 wind, pf, 1963
Lamentations, etude, acc, 1959
Variations, koto, 1961, unpubd
For Lou Harrison and his Jolly Games 16 Measures (count ’em), theme without instrumentation, 1981, unpubd
A Short Fanfare, 2/3 tpt, 2 drums ad lib, 1981, unpubd
Bell Piece, 2/4 players, 1983
Stockton Fanfare, 3 tpt, 2 drums, 1985
1929: Travelling in Spain … Alice Woodfin Branlière, P6; Alternations … Maurice Grosser, P1; Catalan Waltz … Ramón Senabre, P2
1930: Madame Dubost chez elle, P5; Pastoral … Jean Ozenne, P3; Russell Hitchcock Reading, P5; Clair Leonard’s Profile, P6
1935: Meditation … Jere Abbott, P2; Sea Coast … Constance Askew, P2; A Portrait of R. Kirk Askew jr., P2; The Hunt … A. Everett Austin, jr, P4; Helen Austin at Home and Abroad, P5; Souvenir … Paul Bowles, P3; Connecticut Waltzes … Harold Lewis Cook, P6; Hymn … Josiah Marvel, P4; Tennis … Henry McBride, P4; The John Moser Waltzes; Prelude and Fugue … Miss Agnes Rindge, P3; An Old Song … Carrie Stettheimer, P1; Ettie Stettheimer, P5; A Day Dream … Herbert Whiting
1938: Maurice Bavoux: Young and Alone, P6; Portrait of Claude Biais, unpubd; A French Boy of Ten: Louis Lange, P5
1940: Tango Lullaby … Mlle [Flavie] Alvarez de Toledo, P1; With Tpt and Hn … Louise Ardant, incl. in 9 Etudes; Poltergeist … Hans Arp, P4; Stretching … Jamie Campbell, P6; Cantabile … Nicolas de Chatelain, P3; Duet … Clarita, Comtesse de Forceville, P6; In a Bird Cage … Lise Deharme, P2; Pf Sonata no.4: Guggenheim jeune [Peggy Guggenheim]; Barcarolle … Georges Hugnet, P1; Aria … Germaine Hugnet, P2; Invention: Theodate Johnson Busy and Resting, P6; Fanfare for France … Max Kahn, P2; 5-finger Exercise … Léon Kochnitzky, P2; Awake or Asleep … Pierre Mabille, P5; The Bard … Sherry Mangan, P3; Canons with Cadenza … André Ostier, P3; Bugles and Birds … Pablo Picasso, P1; Dora Maar or the Presence of Pablo Picasso, P6; Lullaby which is also a Spinning Song … Howard Putzel, P4; The Dream World of Peter Rose-Pulham, P3; Fugue … Alexander Smallens, P1; Swiss Waltz … Sophie Tauber-Arp, P4; Eccentric Dance … Madame Kristians Tonny; Pastoral … Tristan Tzara, P5; Toccata … Mary Widney, P3
1941: Insistences … Louise Crane, P4; With Fife and Drums … Mina Curtiss, P1; Perc Piece … Jessie K. Lasell, unpubd; Parades … Florine Stettheimer, P6
1942: James Patrick Cannon, Professional Revolutionary, P6; Aaron Copland, Persistently Pastoral, P6; Scottish Memories: Peter Monro Jack, P6; Prisoner of the Mind: Schuyler Watts, P5; Wedding Music … Jean [Mrs. Schuyler] Watts, P4
1943: 5-Finger Exercise … Briggs Buchanan, in 10 Etudes
1945: Solitude … Lou Harrison, P1
1951: Chromatic Double Harmonies … Sylvia Marlowe, in 9 Etudes
1956: Homage to Marya Freund and to the Harp, P6
1958: A Study in Stacked-Up Thirds, rev. 1969 as For Eugene Ormandy’s Birthday, 18 Nov 1969, P5
1966: Edges … Robert Indiana
1972: Man of Iron … Willy Eisenhart
1981, all in P7: Franco Assetto: Drawing V.T.; Gerald Busby: Giving Full Attention; Sam Byers: with Joy; Christopher Cox: Singing a Song; Noah Creshevsky: Loyal, Steady, and Persistent; Barbara Epstein: Untiring; Norma Flender: Waltzing; Richard Flender: Solid not Stolid; Dead Pan: Mrs. Betty Freeman; Morris Golde: Showing Delight; Buffie Johnson: Drawing V.T. in Charcoal; Bill Katz: Wide Awake; Round and Round: Dominique Nabokov; Craig Rutenberg: Swinging; Anne-Marie Soullière: Something of a Beauty; Karen Brown Waltuck: Intensely Two; Scott Wheeler: Free-Wheeling; John Wright: Drawing
1982, unpubd unless otherwise stated: Dennis Russell Davies: in a Hammock; Molly Davies: Terminations; David Dubal: in Flight; Doña Flor: Receiving; Rodney Lister: Music for a Merry-go-round; Dr. Marcel Roche: Making a Decision; Paul Sanfaçon: on the Ice, P7
1983, unpubd: Mark Beard: Never Alone; Powers Boothe: with Pencil; Charles Fussell: in Meditation; Glynn Boothe Harte: Reaching; Bennett Lerner: Senza espressione; Peter McWilliams: Firmly Spontaneous; Malitte Marta: in the Executive Style; Phillip Ramey: Thinking Hard; Louis Rispoli: in a Boat; Vassilis Voglin: on the March
1984, unpubd: Brendan Lemon; John Houseman: No Changes, rev. 1985 and orchd as A Double Take; Lines: for and about Ron Henggeler; Boris Baranovic: Whirling; Tony Tommasini: a Study in Chords
1985, unpubd: Christopher Beach Alone; Danyal Lawson: Playing; Jane Bowles Early and as Remembered; Philip Claflin: dans le temps très noceur; Robin Holloway
2 [orig. 3] Sentimental Tangos, 1923, unpubd; Synthetic Waltzes, 2 pf/pf 4 hands, 1925
5 2-part Inventions, 1926
10 Easy Pieces and a Coda, 1926
Sonata no.1, 1929
Sonata no.2, 1929
Sonata no.3, 1930
10 Etudes, 1943–4
9 Etudes, 1940–51
For a Happy Occasion (Happy Birthday for Mrs. Zimbalist), 1951
Passacaglia, 1922, rev. 1974
Pastorale on a Christmas Plainsong, 1922
5 Chorale Preludes, 1924
Variations on Sunday School Tunes, 1926–7
Church Organ Wedding Music, 1940, rev. 1978
Pange lingua, 1962
Theme for an Improvisation by McNeil Robinson, 1981, unpubd
Organ Voluntaries 1, 2 and 3: a Suite, 1985
The Plow that Broke the Plains (dir. P. Lorentz), 1936
The River (dir. Lorentz), 1937
The Spanish Earth (dir. Ivens), montage of Sp. folk music, 1937, collab. Blitzstein
Tuesday in November (dir. J. Houseman), 1945, incl. Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle, Pastorale and Walking Song
Walking Song arr. pf, 1951, unpubd
Louisiana Story (dir. R. Flaherty), 1948
The Goddess (dir. P. Chayevsky), 1957
Power Among Men (dir. Dickinson, J.C. Sheers), 1958
New York, 5 March 1959
Journey to America (dir. Houseman), 1964
unpublished unless otherwise stated
Le droit de Varech (G. Hugnet), 1930
A Bride for the Unicorn (D. Johnston), 1934
Hamlet (W. Shakespeare), 1936
Horse Eats Hat (E. Labiche, trans. E. Denby), 1936 [music by P. Bowles, orchd Thomson]
Injunction Granted, a Living Newspaper, 1936
Macbeth (Shakespeare), 1936
Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare), 1937
Androcles and the Lion (G.B. Shaw), 1938 [not orchd by Thomson]
The Trojan Women (Euripides), 1940
The Life of a Careful Man (CBS Workshop), 1941
Oidipous Tyrannos (Sophocles), 1941
The Grass Harp (T. Capote), 1952
King Lear (Shakespeare), 1952
Ondine (J. Giraudoux), 1954, pubd
King John (Shakespeare), 1956
Measure for Measure (Shakespeare), 1956, Take, O take those lips away, pubd
The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare), 1957, Tell me where is fancy bred, pubd
Much Ado about Nothing (Shakespeare), 1957, Pardon, goddess of the night and Sigh, no more, ladies, pubd
Othello (Shakespeare), 1957
Bertha (Koch), 1959
- †selected writings from the ‘New York Herald-Tribune’ The State of Music (New York, 1939/R, 2/1961)
- ‘Looking Forward’, MQ, 31 (1945), 157–62; repr. in MQ, lxxv (1991), 108–13
- †The Musical Scene (New York, 1945/R)
- †The Art of Judging Music (New York, 1948/R)
- †Music Right and Left (New York, 1951/R)
- Virgil Thomson (New York, 1966/R)
- †Music Reviewed, 1940–1954 (New York, 1967)
- American Music since 1910 (New York, 1971)
- A Virgil Thomson Reader (New York, 1981)
- Foreword to R. Jackson:: Democratic Souvenirs: an Historical Anthology of 19th Century American Music (New York, 1988)
- Music with Words: A Composer’s View (New Haven, CT, 1989)
- GroveA (R. Jackson:) [incl. further bibliography]
- A. Copland: “Our Younger Generation: Ten Years Later”, MM, 13/4 (1935–6), 3–11
- P. Glanville-Hicks: “Virgil Thomson”, MQ, 35 (1949), 209–25
- K. Hoover and J. Cage: Virgil Thomson: his Life and Music (New York, 1959)
- R. Jackson: The Operas of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson (diss., Tulane U., 1962)
- H.C. Schonberg: “Virgil Thomson: Parisian from Missouri”, HiFi/Stereo Review, 14/5 (1965), 43–56
- “Thomson, Virgil (Garnett)”, CBY 1966
- “A Tribute to Virgil Thomson on his 81st Birthday”, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 5/2 (1977), 405–531
- K.M. Ward: An Analysis of the Relationship between Text and Musical Shape and an Investigation of the Relationship between Text and Surface Rhythmic Detail in ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ by Virgil Thomson (diss., U. of Texas, Austin, 1978)
- H. Gleason and W. Becker: “Virgil Thomson”, 20th-Century American Composers, Music Literature Outlines, ser. 4 (Bloomington, IN, rev. 2/1981), 170 [incl. further bibliography]
- H.W. Hitchcock: “Homage to Virgil Thomson at Eighty-Five”, ISAM Newsletter, 11/1 (1981), 1–2
- M. Meckna: The Rise of the American Composer-Critic: Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter in the Periodical Modern Music, 1924–1946 (diss., U. of California, Santa Barbara, 1984)
- L. Kerner: “Simple is not Easy”, Village Voice (16 Dec 1986)
- M. Meckna: Virgil Thomson: a Bio-Bibliography (New York, 1986)
- L. Raver: “Virgil Thomson, A.G.O. Composer of the Year 1986: the Solo Organ Music”, American Organist 20/4 (1986), 115, 117, 119
- A.C. Tommasini: Virgil Thomson’s Musical Portraits (New York, 1986)
- T. and V.W. Page: Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson (New York, 1988)
- H.W. Hitchcock: “A Portrait by Virgil Thomson: a Report by the Sitter”, ISAM Newsletter, 25/2 (1996), 6
- A. Porter: ‘Virgil Thomson: “A Composer of Operas”’, Opera, 47 (1996), pp. 757–62
- J.C. Tibbetts: “Virgil Thomson: Closing Thoughts”, American Record Guide, 59/6 (1996), 39–42 [1982 interview]
- P. Wittke: Virgil Thomson (New York, 1996)
- A. Tommasini: Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (New York, 1997)
- S. Watson: Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the mainstreaming of American modernism (New York, 1998)
- L. Barg: “Black voices/white sounds: Race and representation in Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in three acts,” American Music, 18/2 (2000), 121–61