Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and music critic Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 25, 1896. His roots in America go back to the early period of colonization. The forefathers of his father, Quincy Alfred Thomson, came to America in 1717. Virgil’s mother, Clara May Gaines Thomson, could trace her ancestry even further, to the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Virgil’s ancestors found their way to Missouri, and for a time his family lived on a farm in Saline County. In 1888 the family moved to Kansas City, where Quincy Thomson found work as a cable-car conductor and later a position with the post office.
According to his sister Ruby Thomson, Virgil’s musical talent was revealed at an early age. A cousin gave him his first piano lessons, and he then went on to study piano with Geneve Lichtenwalter and music theory with Gustave Schoettle. The organist of Grace Episcopal Church, Clarence Sears, gave him organ lessons, while Robert L. Murray gave him singing lessons. According to Virgil, it was Murray who exercised the greatest influence on his early artistic development.
Young Thomson gained local notice as a musical prodigy in Kansas City. By the age of twelve he was performing professionally, giving recitals and substituting as the organist at Calvary Baptist Church. He also excelled in his academic studies. He attended Central High School from 1908 to 1913 and the Kansas City Polytechnic Institute and Junior College in 1915–1917 and 1919. While in junior college, Thomson first demonstrated his talents as a journalist. Bored with the usual college activities, he published a small magazine called Pans in which his and other Pansophists’ writings appeared.
In 1917 Thomson left school to enlist in the US Army. He served in a field artillery unit. He was also trained in radio telephony and at the air service school at Columbia University. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he was ready for shipment to France when World War I ended. In 1918 he left the service and returned to Kansas City. At this point in his life, he made two important decisions: to attend Harvard and to have a music career.
Thomson entered Harvard in the fall of 1919. He was chosen to be a member of the Harvard Glee Club in 1921 and made a summer tour of Europe with the group. When the tour was over, he remained in Paris to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger. In 1923 he graduated from Harvard, at which time he received a Juilliard Fellowship for advanced study. After a year he began to write articles on music for Vanity Fair, to compose, and to teach.
Thomson left for Paris in September 1925, declaring at the time that if he were going to starve as a composer, he “preferred to starve where the food is good.” His most important artistic association began in Paris; in the fall of 1926 he met the famous writer Gertrude Stein. Their meeting led to a period of collaboration, principally the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The opera had its premiere in Hartford, Connecticut, on February 8, 1934. Twelve days later it opened on Broadway. Thomson and Stein also collaborated on The Mother of Us All, an opera about Susan B. Anthony, which was performed in New York in 1947.
In the mid-1930s, Thomson again took up residence in Paris, often returning to the United States to do commissioned work. He composed incidental music for several plays, among them Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, and Macbeth. He remained in Paris until after the German invasion of France in 1940.
Upon his return to New York, Thomson was hired as the chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. During the next fourteen years, until his retirement in 1954, he established himself as one of the major critics of the era. His newspaper articles furnished material for several anthologies, among them The Musical Scene and The Art of Judging Music. While working as a critic, Thomson continued to compose. One of these compositions, the score for the documentary film Louisiana Story, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in music. This was the only time a motion picture score has received the award.
While working as a critic, Thomson often clashed with other critics. His opinions were plain, concise, often provocative, and sometimes outrageous. He carried on a guerrilla war against the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, labeled Jascha Heifetz’s repertory “silk-underwear” music, and observed that the Metropolitan Opera was “not a part of New York’s intellectual life.” Thomson called his reviews “sassy but classy.” His tendency to fall asleep during performances was well known.
As a composer, Thomson helped pioneer America’s musical nationalism. Deriving inspiration from sources such as Baptist hymns and early American popular music, his works ranged through several different styles, owing much to Erik Satie and French neoclassicism. His works included operas, ballets, orchestral and choral works, film scores, and incidental music for plays by numerous authors.
Although his music reflected a decidedly French influence, Thomson maintained that his musical mission was to let people know, through his music, what it was like “to put your feet in the Missouri River.” He never lost his love for his native state. In 1947 he dedicated his tone poem The Seine at Night to the Kansas City Symphony. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City produced The Mother of Us All in 1983, and the State Ballet of Missouri performed his 1937 ballet Filling Station in 1989.
After his stint as a critic for the Herald Tribune, Thomson traveled widely, conducted, gave lectures, wrote more music, and attended conferences. Affected by deafness for the last years of his life, his appearances and work became more limited. Paid tributes throughout his life, his many awards included sixteen honorary doctorates—three from Missouri institutions: Park College, the University of Missouri–Kansas City, and William Jewell College. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He became a chevalier and officer of the French Légion d’honneur and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Award for Lifetime Achievement. “Under a cosmopolitan exterior,” Kathleen Hoover observed, “he remained a solid Midwesterner—sensible, genial, beaver-busy, tolerant of all things but snobbery and sham.”
Thomson, who never married, died in his sleep on September 30, 1989, in New York. He was buried in a family plot at Slater in Saline County, Missouri.
Dilworth, Thomas, and Susan Holbrook, eds. The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Hoover, Kathleen, and John Cage. Virgil Thomson. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959.
Thomson, Virgil. Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954. (New York: Library of America, 2014).
———. Virgil Thomson: An Autobiography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1966.
Tommasini, Anthony. Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound. PBS American Masters documentary film. John Paulson Productions, 2021.
Watson, Steven. Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism. New York: Random House, 1998.
Published July 7, 2022
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