Virgil Thomson

By: Brian Berger
November 25, 2015


Kansas City’s greatest musical export before Charlie Parker, the multifaceted brilliance of VIRGIL THOMSON (1896-1989) is worth knowing in all regards. As a composer, Thomson had a genius for evoking American folk song, ragtime, and hymnals through the aegis of Erik Satie, and his affinity for strong collaborators inspired numerous masterpieces: two operas with librettist Gertrude Stein (Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947); a ballet, Filling Station (1937), with scenarist Lincoln Kirstein; two documentary film scores for director Pare Lorentz (The Plow that Broke the Plains [1936] and The River [1938]) and another for the pseudo-documentary Louisiana Story (1948) — quite a climatic change for Nanook of the North (1922) director Robert Flaherty! A writer of immense wit and style, Thomson’s first book, The State of Music (1939) is, with Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machievellian Musician (1947), the foremost example of mid-century composer-author socio-musical analysis-japery. If sometimes wrongheaded, ridiculous, even bullying, Thomson’s fifteen years (1940-1954) as the chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune comprises an invaluable, immensely entertaining body of work bearing comparison to Edmund Wilson and Manny Farber. If hardly bashful, there was a side to Thomson he would never publicly acknowledge: his queerness. This was a decision of time and temperament and it was almost taken out of Thomson’s hands on the night of March 14, 1942, when the New York City Police department, accompanied by members of the Office of Naval Intelligence, raided the three-story red brick rowhouse at 329 Pacific Street, near downtown Brooklyn, which Gustave Beekman operated as a gay brothel. And while “sodomy” wasn’t normally a federal concern, Nazi espionage — and the sexual blackmail of a sitting U.S. Senator — were. Thomson was in the wrong place at the wrong time and while his name would be omitted from the scandals following, how could such ill-fortune not affect a man, especially after the FBI got involved?

Prologue from Four Saints in Three Acts

“The Old South” from The River (suite)

“Pity the Poor Prosecutor” from Mother of Us All

Cello Concerto (1950)


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Mark Lanegan, Ann Stanford, Etta Jones, Poul Anderson, Lewis Thomas.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).


HiLo Heroes, Music