IHAS: Composer
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
IHAS header
Return to Profiles Menu
Previous Next


As America celebrates the centenary of Virgil Thomson's birth in 1896 with revivals of his works and a new biography in preparation, there is increasing awareness of what a musician's musician this composer and critic truly was. As a composer he created over 150 compositions which skillfully melded indigenous and cosmopolitan influences, while as a writer and lecturer, he devoted himself energetically to elevating musical standards and taste, to creating a wider public for classical music, and to creating a legacy of some of the most elegant, urbane, and intelligent prose that modern music journalism has witnessed.

Born in Kansas City, MO, on November 26, 1896, Virgil Garnett Thomson enjoyed the cultivated, leisurely-paced boyhood of the rural South. Imbued with a strong sense of place--of rootedness in heartland America and its Protestant traditions--Thomson's early connection to music came through the church and through youthful piano lessons and stints accompanying theatricals and silent films. After serving as a military pilot in World War I, he returned home to continue private piano and organ lessons, before setting his sights on Harvard, where he matriculated in 1919. There he worked as an assistant to the Archibald Davison, the director of the Harvard Glee Club and choral anthologist, and he studied composition with Edward Burlingame Hill, later Bernstein's teacher. Both men whetted Thomson's curiosity about things Francophile and helped Thomson secure a fellowship to travel to Paris in 1921, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, sketched his first compositions, associated with the Dadaists, and made friends of the painterly circle patronized by Gertrude and Leonard Stein. It was in Paris, too, that he began his lifelong attachment to painter Maurice Grosser.

Go Next Critic & Composer

Returning to Harvard in 1922, he took his degree in 1923. For the next three years he commuted between New York and Boston where he served as organist for the King's Chapel, and he began to contribute serious music journalism to publications like Mencken's American Mercury and Vanity Fair. It was not long, however, before Europe would once again exert its siren call, and for the next sixteen years he would cross the Atlantic frequently. In 1927 he journeyed to Spain to collaborate with Gertrude Stein on their opera, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS, which they completed in 1928. That same year also produced his SYMPHONY ON A HYMN TUNE, as well as the first of a genre he can be credited with inventing: the musical portrait.

FOUR SAINTS received its premiere in Hartford in 1934 with an all-black cast in an extraordinary visual production with choreography by Frederick Ashton. This was followed by a second collaboration with Stein, based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony, THE MOTHER OF US ALL, which premiered in 1946 shortly before Stein's death. In the intervening years Thomson created film and ballet scores as well as incidental music for the theatre and visited Paris until the Nazi occupation forced him to flee. Back in New York in 1940, he settled into his final home, The Chelsea Hotel, and accepted a job as music critic for the Herald Tribune, which he retained until 1954. After his resignation from the paper he devoted himself to a third opera, LORD BYRON, and to writing his autobiography in 1966 and his book AMERICAN MUSIC SINCE 1910 in 1971.

Embittered by the Metropolitan Opera's canceling its promised premiere of LORD BYRON, Thomson had to content himself with a pared-down version presented by the Juilliard School in 1972, and it was not until 1991 that the work would be performed in its entirety at the Monadnock Festival in New Hampshire. Ever feisty and energetic, though troubled by deafness, Thomson continued to compose until a week before his death in New York City on September 30, 1989, at the age of ninety-three.

Though Thomson's fame as a composer rested primarily with his three operas, the approximately seventy songs he wrote between 1926 and 1980 contain some true jewels, among them his first published song, SUSIE ASADO to a poem of Gertrude Stein, and his two cycles, FIVE SONGS FROM WILLIAM BLAKE (1951) and MOSTLY ABOUT LOVE to texts by New York poet Kenneth Koch (1959), from which A PRAYER TO ST. CATHERINE comes.

Go Next Prayer

Poem by Kenneth Koch

If I am to be preserved from heartache and shyness
By Saint Catherine of Siena,
I am praying to her that she will hear my pray'r
And treat me in ev'ry way with kindness.

I went to Siena to Saint Catherine's own church
(It is impossible to deny this)
To pray to her to cure me of my heartache and shyness,
Which she can do, because she is a great saint.

Other saints would regard my pray'r as foolish.
Saint Nicholas, for example. He would chuckle
"God helps those who help themselves,
Rouse yourself! Get out there and do something about it!"

Or Saint Joanna. She would say, "It's not shyness
That bothers you. It is sin.
Pray to Catherine of Siena." But that is what I have done.
And that is why I have come here to cure my heartache.

Saint Catherine of Siena,
If this song pleases you, then be good enough to answer

the pray'r it contains.
Make the person that sings this song less shy than that
person is,
And give that person some joy in that person's heart.
that person's heart.

Return Home Top of the page
[ Home | Profiles | Timeline ]

[Thirteen Online]       [ PBS Online ]