Issue 130, Spring 1994
Virgil Thomson visited Paris in 1921 and lived there from October 1925 to August 1940. It was during his long stay in Paris that he became an important American composer. He is considered the first serious modem composer to set English to music without distorting its natural rhythms and inflections. In the 1930s Thomson helped to found the neo-romantic movement in music and painting centered in Paris. In 1928, in collaboration with Gertrude Stein, he wrote his first opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which was produced in 1934. He went on to compose settings for several of Stein’s texts and a second opera, The Mother of Us All, also with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. In the early 1930s he began to compose “portraits” after the model of her literary portraits. Upon returning to the United States, he became the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He continued to write music: a classical ballet, a third opera and scores for films, among them Louisiana Story, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He won the New York Critics Circle Award for The Virgil Thomson Reader (1981) and, in 1983, the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement. He died in New York in September 1989 at the age of ninety-four.
During his time abroad he was personally acquainted with most of the writers, musicians, sculptors and painters who helped make Paris between the wars the artistic capital of the world. “I’ve always had a comprehensive mentality, ” he said, his speech still mellowed by the accent of his native Missouri, ’’From my earliest times, I read books, and I was brought up with the blessed smell of turpentine. . . I’ve had my friends among the poets and painters far more than among musicians. ”
In what follows, Thomson talks about his relationships with people he knew in Paris. It is a monologue constructed from conversations recorded in February 1981 in Windsor, Ontario.