A generally informative biography of the influential American composer that suffers, paradoxically, from its author's...

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VIRGIL THOMSON: Composer on the Aisle

A generally informative biography of the influential American composer that suffers, paradoxically, from its author's intimacy with his subject. Tommasini was teaching at Boston's Emerson College when he met Thomson in 1979; he wrote his dissertation on the composer's musical portraits and remained a friend until Thomson's death in 1989, aged 92. The chapters covering this period believably depict a cantankerous, capricious, often cruel old man, but Tommasini overemphasizes these traits in the composer's first 80 years. Bossy and opinionated Thomson certainly was from his earliest days as a musical and intellectual prodigy in Kansas City, Mo. He was also a generous friend and an unswerving champion of modern American classical music, especially during his tenure as the powerful music critic of the New York Herald Tribune (1940-54). With the arguable exception of the two operas he set to texts by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947), Thomson's own work was underestimated, even though his tonality, stress on simplicity, and skillful use of traditional American tunes strongly influenced Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and many others. Tommasini adequately describes individual pieces, including scores for such groundbreaking documentaries as The Plow That Broke the Plains and Louisiana Story (for which Thomson won a Pulitzer) but doesn't give a satisfactory overall assessment of the composer's place in the American musical pantheon. His judgments on Thomson's private life also lack perspective: He implicitly criticizes the composer for remaining a closeted homosexual, even as the narrative--which mentions acquaintances receiving lengthy jail sentences and one scary near-miss for Thomson--illustrates why gay men of that generation often preferred to be discreet. Despite lots of gossip, the essence of Thomson's most important relationships, in particular a long-term one with the painter Maurice Grosser, remains elusive. Tommasini had access to the relevant documents and made reasonable use of them, but his book lacks the qualities Thomson's own writings always had: wit, verve, and a sense of history.

Pub Date: June 1, 1997

ISBN: 0393318583

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1997