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Composer and Music Critic Virgil Thomson Dies at 92

October 01, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

When his financial situation failed to improve he told friends that if he were to starve as a composer he "preferred to starve where the food is good." He returned to Paris and settled on the Left Bank where he composed "Sonata da Chiesa," a traditional piece in contrast with the dissonance prevalent in music of the 1920s.

Thomson, the critic Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times once observed, wrote on the "white keys" in "a period when desperate dissonance was in fashion."

In 1926, he was introduced to Gertrude Stein. He already had become attracted to her experiments with language and, after meeting her, wrote a cantata based on her "Capitals, Capitals."

The following year they began work on what most critics believe will be Thomson's most enduring musical legacy: "Four Saints in Three Acts." Essentially it was an opera of nonsense, blending humor and metaphor in what alternately is America and 16th-Century Spain. The allegory is filled with Stein-isms (its most famous "Pigeons in the grass alas") and its production marked the melding of the talents of John Houseman (director), Frederick Ashton (choreographer) and Florine Stettheimer (the immortal cellophane and glass bead sets).

It was half acting and half dance as the saints erect their cathedrals in a setting that Thomson said was "like the artistic life that we (the Bohemian expatriates of Paris) were all living."

Performed Six Years Later

Finished in 1928, Thomson's haunting masterwork--which features closer to 40 than four saints and involves four, not three, acts--was not produced until 1934. When it was, Thomson's tuneful score juxtaposed against Stein's avant-garde, free-spirited libretto made him an overnight sensation.

(The original cast was all black, creating additional tempest at a time when blacks were used only in black-related themes and not in hymn-like and hypnotic ventures into things theological. Blacks were used, Thomson said in a 1981 interview because of their "beauty." "Blacks sing so beautifully and they look so beautiful.")

Although it is resurrected occasionally, "Four Saints," has never been staged at the Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera.

More popular, successful and more frequently performed was a second and much later collaboration with Stein, "The Mother of Us All," an operatic paean to Susan B. Anthony written in 1946-47. In it Thomson sprinkled American dances, marches and hymns and folk songs in quilt-like manner. The critic Schonberg said it "may be recognized as one of the few examples of genuine Americana on the lyric stage."

Thomson spent the years after "Four Saints" in Paris, leaving only when the Germans invaded France. Although it was a relatively bleak period in his professional life as far as performances were concerned, with the dissonant writers in fashion, Thomson did write music for New York shows including "Macbeth" in 1936, in which Orson Welles directed a black Federal Theater cast.

After returning to the United States in 1940, he wrote some radio background music, particularly for the CBS Workshop broadcast of "The Trojan Woman" and then reunited with Stein for "The Mother of Us All" which has been staged more than 3,000 times.

In addition to "Louisiana Story," other films Thomson scored included "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River," both with Midwestern backgrounds much like the composer's own, "The Goddess" and "Voyage to America," actor-director Houseman's documentary about immigrants to America.

Musical 'Portraits'

He also began working on his "portraits," scores of musical piano tributes of people he admired. They ran the gamut from Picasso to Aaron Copland to Fiorello LaGuardia.

He wrote a ballet--"Filling Station"--for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan in 1937, preceding Copland's scoring for such American dance pageants as "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo."

In 1972 he wrote his third opera, "Lord Byron," a tribute to George Gordon Byron, the defiant, melancholy British poet. It was performed by the Juilliard School in 1972 but seldom seen again.

Thomson's 85th birthday, in 1981, sparked a series of parties and the publication of "A Virgil Thomson Reader," a 582-page anthology of the best of his written criticism. The 5-foot-5 composer was saluted at parties throughout New York and interviewed by fellow critics in the old-fashioned elegance of the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan where he had lived for years.

His 90th birthday was less frenetic but did result in more desultory interviews in which the lifelong bachelor refused to evaluate himself or his music for posterity. He did tell a writer for New York magazine that "it (the music) lives its own life. But I suspect that long from now, when things have settled down, Copland's ballets and my operas will remain."

As to his unique and distinctive career as both artist and critic, Thomson observed "it takes three people to make music properly: one man to write it, another to play it and a third to criticize it.

"Anything else is just a rehearsal."

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