The Composer from the Plains
If someone were to make a list of famous Kansas Citians, Virgil Thomson would almost certainly not be included.
But he should be. American music wouldn't be the same without him.
As a composer, Thomson wrote copiously in an array of genres and helped shape an American vernacular with his film scores for "Louisiana Story," which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1949, and two New Deal-era Pare Lorentz documentaries, "The Plow that Broke the Plains" and "The River."
As an influential music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954, he was not one to be wishy-washy, letting his readers know what he thought was good and what he thought was rubbish, in as much command of the English language as he was with his own musical language.
Thomson died 25 years ago this month at the age of 92. In an Oct. 1, 1989, obituary in the New York Times, Leonard Bernstein mourned his friend’s passing.
"The death of Virgil T is like the death of an American city: It is intolerable," Bernstein said. "We all loved his music and rarely performed it."
Thomson's music faces that same conundrum in the 21st century, with orchestras perhaps finding it difficult to include it with the usual repertoire. Kansas City Symphony conductor Michael Stern admits that he regrets not having conducted a single piece by a son of this city, but he is open to the possibility. And if he does, his musicians will discover music that eschews grandiosity but is expertly crafted. He writes with genteel simplicity in many of his works, but he's also unafraid of unorthodox chords and quirky instrumentation.
With such a concentration of his contemporaries from the East Coast — Bernstein, Aaron Copland, William Schuman and Samuel Barber, to name several — there's a sense of Midwestern pride in having this 1914 graduate of Central High School in Kansas City as a major force in the musical arts.
"The fact that Virgil Thomson came from the Heartland shows the diversity of American experience," Stern says. "Plus his worldliness helped, I think, to shape his incredible Americanism."
Thomson studied in France, and in later years he would compare Kansas City favorably to Paris. He got to know a fascinating cast of artistic characters in Paris, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, who would be Thomson's librettist for two of his three operas, "Four Saints in Three Acts" (1928) and "The Mother of Us All" (1947).
What's encouraging is that more recordings are being made so that the public can be more familiar with his music. In April, Albany Records released a new performance of "The Mother of Us All," Thomson's opera about suffragette Susan B. Anthony, by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. In 2010, the Grammy-nominated Boston Modern Orchestra Project recorded his "Three Pictures" with several shorter pieces that are scored either for orchestra or vocal soloist and orchestra. And the Naxos label has shown a steady allegiance to Thomson by recording his works of various instrumental combinations, from symphonies to solo pieces.
Stern wonders whether Copland would've been so successful with all of his music that was so steeped in the American West and indigenous folk if a Kansas Citian hadn't cultivated the idea that American composers could look to that for inspiration. Maybe Bernstein had that in mind too as he was eulogizing Thomson 25 years ago.
"He will always remain brightly alive in the history of music, if only for the extraordinary influence his witty and simplistic music had on his colleagues," Bernstein said. "I know that I am one twig on that tree, and I will always cherish and revere Virgil, the source."
Top Picks: Five Virgil Thomson Recommendations
5. "Cello Concerto" (1950): You can almost envision a cowboy on his horse in the Flint Hills as you hear the first movement, "Rider on the Plains." But the most striking music is in the beautifully clashing harmonies in the strings and solo woodwinds in the second movement, "Variations on a Southern Hymn."
4. "Filling Station" (1938): Engaging, funny and quintessentially American, Thomson's ballet about the adventures of a gas station mechanic named Mac predates other famous ballets from his colleagues, like Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring."
3. "Three Pictures for Orchestra" (1947-52): For the disparate scenes of "The Seine at Night," "Wheat Field at Noon" and particularly "Sea Piece with Birds," Thomson writes some of his most experimental and complex music.
2. "Symphony on a Hymn Tune" (1928): There are a few Thomsonian peculiarities, like the cadenza to round out the first movement in which a violin, cello, trombone and piccolo battle against each other. But Thomson's first symphony, based on the hymn "How Firm a Foundation," exudes charm at every turn.
1. "The Plow that Broke the Plains" (1936): Thomson's musical aesthetic was perfect for this film about farming practices in the 1930s and the subsequent Dust Bowl. The concert suite has been recorded by such legendary conductors as Leopold Stokowski and Sir Neville Marriner.