About Last Night

Virgil Thomson
Music Chronicles 1940 – 1954
(Library of America, 2014)

The first pages of the Library of America’s new collection make it clear that when Virgil Thomson was named head music critic of the New York Herald Tribune in the fall of 1940, he came in spoiling for a fight. At that time, New York’s staid musical establishment was still in thrall to the 19th century and the Austro-German tradition, whereas Thomson was not only an ardent Francophile—he lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940, fleeing one step ahead of the Nazis in June of that year—but a composer of avant-garde tendencies whose opera Four Saints in Three Acts boasted a libretto by Gertrude Stein.

His opening salvos aimed at fat targets: Brahms’s music, Thomson informed his readers, is “timid and over-respectful of the past,” devotion to it “the mark of a quite definite musical conservatism”; Sibelius was “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description”; the violinist Jascha Heifetz produced “silk-underwear music”; and the playing of the New York Philharmonic (in Thomson’s inaugural review, no less) was “dull and brutal.”

The Library of America volume, Music Chronicles 1940–1954, restores to print four collections of Thomson’s criticism from the years indicated, along with a miscellany of previously uncollected pieces. These four books have been out of print for decades, and Thomson’s own compositions now hover just outside the repertory, so I came to the new book knowing almost nothing of the author save for his reputation as one of the reigning eminences at the Hotel Chelsea, where he presided from 1940 until his death in 1989. But I quickly felt as if that ignorance made my reading experience all the richer. To encounter a critical voice of this authority, for the first time, in bulk, is an event. Well before I’d finished the new volume, Thomson’s wit, his intellectual omnivorousness, and the lucidity of his prose had me feeling as though I’d discovered another Edmund Wilson.

That wit is probably the first thing a reader notices, and indeed the temptation to quote Thomson’s spicier aperçus is irresistible—from his praise for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in which “the orchestra actually sounded as if it were accompanying a pianoforte instead of spanking it,” to his declaration that “Wagner’s music dramas are conceived for a theater of whales.” And it may be impossible to look at the portrait of Philharmonic conductor John Barbirolli in Avery Fisher Hall the same way again after reading how that podium worthy “gets frantic and conducts with his hair, always the first refuge of an Italian when he can’t think of the next right move.”

It’s important to recognize, though, that for all their entertainment value Thomson’s pans are always at the service of an attractively direct and plainspoken personal aesthetic. This is what gives him a claim on our attention today, and what allows a 21st-century reader like this Sibelius fan to overlook the inevitable biases and blind spots (which every critic has). Because for Thomson, even the most routine night at the concert hall is an opportunity to argue for expressivity—for what he likes to call interpretations as opposed to mere readings. As he puts it in 1944, after a disappointing turn from one blue-chip ensemble:

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is overtrained and has been for several years. Its form is perfect, but it does not communicate. The music it plays never seems to be about anything, except how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play. Perfection of execution that oversteps its purpose is a familiar phenomenon in art. That way lies superficiality and monotony.

Again, in 1947, a so-so outing from the Baltimore Symphony allows him to make the case even more aphoristically: “The readings are clean, but they are only readings. They are not in any sense interpretations. […] In music making it is always better to be wrong than reserved.” For that last sentence alone, Thomson’s criticism needed to be back in print.

He was ready to apply his precepts to an exceptionally wide range of sounds. Anything but a musical snob, this big-city sophisticate writes respectfully about swing, pops concerts, military bands, and glee clubs in between trips to Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. It’s telling that of all the performers he evokes in these pages, few come to life more vividly than Brother Utah Smith, “The One-Man Band,” an itinerant African-American evangelist whose electric guitar sends a Newark church into transports in a Thomson column from 1941. (An all-black staging of Four Saints in Three Acts had been a succès de scandale for Thomson in 1934, and his interest in black artists is a gratifying sub-thread in Music Chronicles.)

About half a decade into his Herald Tribune tenure, Thomson began training his faculties, as he notes in a 1950 preface, less on standard repertory and “nationally advertised brands” than on emerging trends, outliers, “everything that might be preparing the second half of our century for being different from the first.” This helps account for the kind of you-are-there fascination that deepens as we proceed with him further into the ’40s, and to events like the New York premiere of Copland’s Appalachian Spring at a Martha Graham program, or a New School concert of John Cage’s works for prepared piano.

This sense of our own world coming into being doesn’t end with these cameos, though. The reader of 2015 is regularly struck by how many of Thomson’s causes continue to resonate more than 60 years later. In 1940, he laments that the Philharmonic is “not a part of New York’s intellectual life,” but in 1952—railing, as it happens, against the artistic conservatism of the Metropolitan Opera—he concedes: “Today that remark would not be true. […] It took a new conductor to make the change, and the change is not yet complete.” Sound familiar? Meanwhile, a withering 1953 dispatch about picketers protesting in front of the Met for what they perceive as anti-Catholic bias in Verdi’s Don Carlos is almost embarrassingly pertinent after last fall’s Klinghoffer fracas.

Not everyone is likely to want to consume nearly a thousand pages of music criticism from start to finish—although I looked forward to picking up this companionable volume again every day for several weeks. If you’re daunted, another rewarding way to approach the new collection is through the index: Pick out a performer or composer who interests you, and then follow the thread of Thomson’s reactions through the years.

I want to make a special recommendation to other writers, too. With so much arts journalism having had to migrate online in recent years, the compact efficiency of these pieces should be a model to those of us who strive to marshal our thoughts into web-ready formats. And at a time when so much criticism has devolved into the routine assigning of letter or numerical grades, it’s bracing to be reminded, as we are here, that “The poorest performance does not justify a poorly written review or any assumption of the right to grant or withhold degrees. Writing a review is not giving an examination; it is taking one.” That’s a test Thomson passes over and over again in the pages of this book.

Contributor

Jeff Tompkins

JEFF TOMPKINS, a writer and comics artist in New York City, is the Online Content and Community Manager for the Library of America.

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