A VIRGIL THOMSON READER by Virgil Thomson
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A VIRGIL THOMSON READER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Sassy and classy"" is what composer/critic Virgil Thomson has wanted to be in his varied writings on music--and that he is: one of the great examples of erudition and technical rigor in happy cooperation with witty, anti-academic plainspoken-ness. So, though one perhaps wishes that this generous volume included less from previous compilations and more from Thomson's uncollected writings, it's a grand parade of musical involvements from the Twenties on. . . and from every conceivable vantage point: composer, colleague, businessman, propagandist, gadfly, esthetician, critic, and garden-variety concertgoer. Excerpts from Virgil Thomson are interspersed to provide some autobiographical groundings (though the best passages about the creation of Four Saints in Three Acts are not included). Early articles in American Mercury and Modern Music show him, characteristically, writing seriously about jazz in 1924; arguing, re Aaron Copland, for simplicity and natural dance rhythm in American composition; superbly capturing the paradox of Porgy and Bess (""falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed, but. . . an important work because it is abundantly conceived and executed entirely by hand""); comparing Benny Goodman's ""quantitative rhythm"" to Bach's. And there are seven essays from the 1939 The State of Music--which, only slightly dated when republished in 1961, seem much more so now: nuts-and-bolts survival advice to composers; attacks on the ""Music Appreciation Racket""; a call-to-arms for composers ""to assume control of everything that regards music."" But the heart of the book remains the 14 years of reviews (1940-1954) from the Herald Tribune, in which the whole range of Thomson's tastemaking is reflected: his championing of Debussy, Ravel, Satie (whose music ""wears no priestly robes; it mumbles no incantations; it is not painted up by Max Factor to terrify elderly ladies or to give little girls a thrill""); his fresh approach to the immortals (""The truth is that Haydn wrote music like an old bachelor""); his esthetic credos (""anything is all right if it is enough so"") and insistence on moral integrity; his concern over musical politics (the Shostakovich case); his richly ambivalent attitude toward Schoenberg and Co.; his preoccupation with the complex matter of sung English; his enlightened populism (there aren't ""five American 'art composers' who can be compared, as song writers, for either technical skill or artistic responsibility, with Irving Berlin""). And, from his writing since, there are excerpts from American Music Since 1910 (on Ives, Ruules, Cage), sprightly book reviews, much on Stravinsky, a shrewd piece on music critics (singling out Andrew Porter), and a splendid conversation with critic John Rockwell in which Thomson says that ""Boulez is a German agent."" All in all: unfussy, idea-packed--indispensable.

Pub Date: Nov. 25th, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin