The National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Choral Music initiative is designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and their works of the past 250 years. Stanton’s Sheet Music is proud to present this series highlighting the composers and their works featured in this groundbreaking project.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was one of America’s most stimulating, thoughtful, original, and long-lived composers and critics. He created one of the first really distinctive American operas (Four Saints in Three Acts), he composed distinguished film scores (The Louisiana Story won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949), he wrote witty and perceptive critiques of the American musical scene for many years, and he was still active into his 90s.
He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, into a morally strict family. He gravitated to music and was composing piano pieces with names like “The Chicago Fire” at age four. During study in France he came under the spell of Erik Satie and the Group of Six who overturned Romantic orthodoxy by mixing jazz and dance-hall tunes with serious compositional techniques. It was a perfect fit for Thomson, who found a unique style by blending this with his heritage of nostalgic middle-Americana.
His music is elegantly crafted, yet warm and human. It is richly evocative of an America half real, half imagined, but vividly recreated out of nostalgia and sincere affection. The range of Thomson’s choral music is wide. His 1934 Mass for two-part chorus and percussion is a dissonant, minimalist piece that seems avant-garde even today. Also in the 1930s he wrote incidental music for productions at John Houseman’s Phoenix Theater in New York. A planned staging of one Greek tragedy never came off, but Thomson saved his choral music as the concert piece Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripides.
Four Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion pays tribute to music techniques of Elizabethan England. More characteristic of the Thomson most of us know are the straightforwardly simple Hymns from the Old South, Variations on Sunday School Tunes, and “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”