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The Book of Virgil

As the Library of America prepares to bring out Volume 1 of Virgil Thomson's selected music criticism, the project's editor, TIM PAGE, recalls the great man's wit, brilliance and fire.

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© Betty Freeman/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2014
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Critic and composer Virgil Thomson
© Bettmann/CORBIS 2014

Back in the Manhattan of the 1970s — that vanished place of impoverished, exuberant creativity, cheap and plentiful apartments and the constant threat of random murder — there were two apartment buildings likely to inspire a pilgrimage among eager young people during their first visit to town. 

One was the Dakota, of course, made famous by John Lennon's residence and the filming of Rosemary's Baby. And then there was the Chelsea Hotel, forty-nine blocks due south, on what was then a dreary block of West Twenty-third Street. The Chelsea was best known for the array of pop musicians who had lived there — Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin — but some would remember that it had also been home to Edgar Lee Masters, Thomas Wolfe and, during his last, fatal visit to America, Dylan Thomas. 

All of them were gone now, but there remained one undisputed Grand Old Man — the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who had moved into the hotel in 1940 as a homecoming refugee from Paris on the brink of war and had lived in the same modest suite since 1943. 

The Chelsea had no doorman. One simply pushed through the garish lobby — taking care not to trip over wasted people with hair colors not found in nature — and rode the slow elevator up to the ninth floor. After ringing the bell to Suite 920, the visitor would be ushered by Thomson's assistant into a darkened room where, amid the whitewashed high-Victorian design of the apartment that was incongruously studded with modernist masterpieces by Florine Stettheimer and Jean Arp, Thomson would likely be resting — napping, more probably — in a comfortable armchair. 

He was a small man with a large belly, his cherubic face dotted with sharp eyes that would flash with sudden temperament. Extremely hard of hearing in his later years, he continued to compose occasionally, writing music onto the paper directly, although he was no longer able to check it at an instrument. He spoke precisely and distinctly in a piercing, high-pitched voice, sometimes putting me in mind of a rare and brilliant bird that had somehow learned English and won prizes for elocution. 

We met in 1979, but he never remembered me until I had begun to publish in The New York Times a few years later. He liked my criticism, as it happened, and invited me down to the Chelsea in 1986 to talk about editing a selection of his letters for publication. I was honored and quickly agreed to join the project, spending much of the next year reading more than half a century of his correspondence in tandem with Vanessa Weeks Page, to whom I was married. 

The result, issued in early 1988 as Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, was a corrupt edition, I'm sorry to say. Virgil wanted to change all too many of his long-ago thoughts, and we were contractually obligated to comply. Dropping out of the project was out of the question; we were young and poor and had an infant son, who accompanied us to several editing sessions. During one session, six-month-old William had one of those inconsolable baby fits that scare the hell out of new parents, and we spent much of our time racing back and forth to try to calm him in the back bedroom. Three hours later, all gurgles and coos, Will was again presented to Thomson, who pronounced him "the best baby I've ever met — he didn't make a peep the whole time you were here!" 

The book was published, Virgil was pleased, and we were asked if we would compile his complete music criticism for Oxford University Press (OUP). Three or four years later, we ended up with a stack of photocopied reviews six or seven feet high, and OUP, realizing that it would have a multi-volume collection on its hands to publish and promote in a time of deep trouble for the book business, decided to opt out graciously. We were thanked and paid, the manuscript boxes were turned over to the Virgil Thomson Foundation, and that seemed an end to things. 

Cut to another lifetime, to the spring of 2013. Virgil has been dead for almost a quarter century; I'm mostly retired from criticism, living in Los Angeles and teaching music and journalism at the University of Southern California. One day a call comes from the Library of America, and suddenly the project is alive again — not for all of Virgil's criticism, to be sure (no critic, with the possible exception of Samuel Johnson, deserves to have every word preserved) but enough to stand as a monument to his originality, audacity and importance to musical thinking in the mid-twentieth century. 

And so I reread everything that Thomson had published during his fourteen years as chief critic for The New York Herald Tribune (1940–54). I had learned from my earlier experience with him that it is generally easier and more fun to edit dead people than living ones, and this time I had to change nothing but a few typos. Still, I could almost hear him chuckling with me as the process went along. I was asked to keep the collection of Herald Tribune writings to about 800 pages. (A second volume — including the darting, sassy early book The State of Music, which won him the Tribune job, and some post-Tribune publications — will be issued by the Library of America in 2016.) As I read, I realized that I didn't want to leave much out. With amazingly little argument, my editors permitted the book — Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954 — to grow to almost 1,200 pages. 

I had found a trove of startling material that Thomson had kept out of his self-edited volumes of criticism (all of which — The Musical Scene (1945), The Art of Judging Music (1948), Music Right and Left (1951) and a little paperback catch-all called Music Reviewed (1967) — are included in their entirety). Like many topical commentators, he didn't want his assessments to be proven "wrong" by posterity, so he omitted some of his liveliest and most controversial reviews. 

For example, here is Thomson on Billy Budd in 1952: "For all its detailed excellences dramatic and musical, Billy Budd became for this listener … an interminable, an unconscionable bore." And on the Mahler Resurrection Symphony: "Really, how pretentious can you be about a thoroughly conventional harmony-and-counterpoint exercise on the C-minor chord?"

There are many more such heresies in the book — putdowns of Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini mingled with paeans to forgotten composers, most of them French (and many — too many — of them personal friends of Thomson's). His antipathy toward Sibelius now seems wildly eccentric: he called the composer's Symphony No. 2 "vulgar, provincial and self-indulgent beyond all description" — and this is in his very first Tribune review! 

Yet it is not to "agree" with Thomson that we read him. Rather it is for the prose, so exact and knowing, the mind so sharp, the near-miraculous ability to make the music sound in our ears, long after it has died out. Moreover, he's often very funny. Even those of us who love the Missa Solemnis can likely agree that it is "too loud and too high too much of the time," while exulting in just that impossibility. 

One latter-day joy is the fact that some of the reviews here can now be "checked." A performance of Elektra conducted by Fritz Reiner, with Astrid Varnay in the title role, is available for listening on the Met Opera website. There, we can hear just what made Thomson so excited one night in February 1952: "Richard Strauss's Elektra, as presented last Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera House, was the finest musical performance of any opera that I have ever heard. And I have heard some memorable ones. The singing shone, and the orchestra glowed. The sound of it all was rich, sombre, complex and at the same time utterly plain and meaningful."

This is great criticism — valuable to the lay person and the professional musician alike. It is on a level with the film writing of Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael, the dance criticism of Edwin Denby, the theater chronicles of George Jean Nathan and Frank Rich, and the late-twentieth-century New York restaurant reviews of Seymour Britchky (the last of whom will someday be recognized as a social satirist on a par with Thackeray). It does not matter whether we can still taste the food, watch the performance, feel the onstage charisma. In all these cases, such are the explanatory abilities and deep charm of the appraiser at hand that the criticism is sufficient art in itself. 

Until the end, Virgil retained his wit, his common sense and his fierce independence. During one of his late-life illnesses, fed up with the gentle solicitude of the hospital staff, he fixed his sharp gaze on the doctor and asked bluntly whether or not he was going to die. "If I am, I have a lot of things to get done," he insisted. The doctor reassured him, consolingly, but Thomson had no time for sentiment. "Well, if I'm not going to die," he snapped, "then pass me my appointment book." 

The appointments ceased on September 30, 1989. "Virgil Thomson died just the way he had hoped he would: at home, in his sleep, and in time to make all editions of the Sunday New York Times," Anthony Tommasini observed in a memorial tribute. (He would go on to write a magnificent biography that captured the man in all his complexity.) 

There was never any doubt that Thomson cared about posterity, the nature of which may have seemed more of a sure thing twenty-five years ago than it does today. Still, my students, whether schooled in music or not, share my delight as we read him together each year in a program devoted to arts journalism. We have been exposed to the workings of a fearless, creative and idiosyncratic brain. We laugh, we argue with him, we struggle against him, we concur or we disagree — but we are not the same after reading him as we were before. Criticism can do no more. spacer 

TIM PAGE is Professor of Music and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he helps oversee a master's degree program in arts journalism. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for The Washington Post. 

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