CM: Virgil Thomson (25 November 1896 - 30 September 1989) was an American composer and critic from Kansas City, Missouri. He was instrumental in the development of the "American Sound" in classical music. He has been described as a modernist, a neoclassicist, a composer of "an Olympian blend of humanity and detachment" [Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Virgil Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts 03/1949 Musical Quarterly p.330] whose, "expressive voice was always carefully muted," until his late opera Lord Byron which, in contrast to all his previous work, exhibited an emotional content that rises to, "moments of real passion" [Paul Griffiths, Virgil Thomson in The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians 2001 Macmillan Publishers, London].
Thomson displayed an extraordinary intelligence at an early age. He attended Harvard University, and his tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped nurture his desire to return there. He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) and became a fixture of Paris in the twenties. His most important friend from this period was Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him. Following the publication of his book The State of Music (Vintage Books, New York 1962) he established himself in New York City as a peer of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and was also a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1937 through 1951. His writings on music, and his reviews of performances in particular, are noted for their wit and their independent judgments. His definition of music was famously "that which musicians do" [Ned Rorem, A Ned Rorem Reader 2001 Yale University Press, Connecticut p.223], and his views on music are radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source [Virgil Thomson, The State of Music, p.81].
In the 1930s, he worked as a theater and film composer. His most famous works for theater are two operas with libretti by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts (1929/1934), especially famous for its use of an all-black cast, and The Mother of Us All (1946/1947), as well as incidental music for Orson Welles' Depression-era production of Macbeth (1936), set in the Caribbean. He collaborated closely with "Chick" Austin of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum in these early productions. His first film commission was The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), sponsored by the United States Resettlement Administration, which also sponsored the film The River (1938) with music by Thomson. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1949 with his film score for Louisiana Story (1948). He was a recipient of Yale University's Sanford Medal. In 1988, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. In addition, Thomson was famous for his revival of the rare technique of composing "musical portraits" of living subjects, often spending hours in a room with them before rushing off to finish the piece on his own. Many subjects reported feeling that the pieces did capture something unique about their identities even though nearly all of the portraits were absent of any clearly representational content [Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson's Musical Portraits 1986, Pendragon Press, New York, p.19]. Virgil Thomson's personal papers are in a repository at the Archival Papers in the Music Library of Yale University and also additional effects regarding Thomson are included in the Ian Hornak repository at the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art in Washington DC.
Starting in 1925, the Kansas City-born composer Virgil Thomson mostly lived in Paris, a city he adored. When the Second World War broke out he permanently moved to New York. The circumstances under which Frances Rich received the commission to create the Portrait of Virgil Thomson remain to be investigated. The fact is that she took a very fine photograph of the right profile of Thomson's face, most likely during a visit of his to her left bank studio at 9 rue Delambre, in Paris. Closely following this photograph Rich, designed the present preliminary sketch of Thomson's profile in graphite, dated 1960. She outlined the contours of the profile's various levels - head, eye, lips and ear - with clarity and precision. This life-size drawing was instrumental in allowing Rich to create Thompson's portrait in the round, measuring 29x20x24 cm. In a letter of Rich to her mother, dated 1 July 1961, she reveals that work on the Thomson portrait began on February 1961. She writes: "The head bust I have in bronze [with a green and black patina] and nicely mounted on a black Belgian marble base" [The Frances L. Rich Archives, Payson]. At the time of writing, the bronze portrait had returned from Georges Rudier Fondeur in Paris, and was ready to deposit along with other items in the Virgil Thomson collection at Fales Library in New York University. Subsequently, the Thomson collection was sent to the School of Music at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Nowadays, the Bust Portrait of Virgil Thomson is prominently displayed in Yale University's Gilmore Music Library. With her work, Rich paid fine tribute to Thomson who played an important role in shaping contemporary American classical music.
[Megakles Rogakos 01/2009]
PAULA B. FREEDMAN & ROBIN JAFEE FRANK American Sculpture at Yale University 1992 Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
ROGAKOS, MEGAKLES Frances Rich - La Gazelle 2010 The American College of Greece - ACG Art, Athens