Virgil Thomson is probably best remembered for his scores for a handful of
films including, Louisiana Story, The Plow that Broke the Plains and
The River, plus his comic opera, Four Saints in Three Acts.
Thomson was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris where he lived for many years.
He taught music at Harvard, played the organ at King's Chapel, Boston and
was the respected yet feared music critic of the New York Herald
Tribune. As Leonard Bernstein remarked after his death, "Virgil was loving
and harsh, generous and mordant, simple but cynical, son of the hymnal yet
highly sophisticated. We all loved his music and rarely performed it. Most
of us preferred his unpredictable and provocative prose." Virgil Thomson
had a great influence on the work of his fellow composers particularly Aaron
This album eschews Virgil Thomson's more progressive music in favour of four
of his more immediately attractive and accessible scores. The excellent booklet
notes, by Marina and Victor Ledlin, include Virgil Thomson's own extensive
programme notes from the first performances of his works. Sedares and his
Wellington ensemble clearly enjoy this predominantly jolly outgoing music.
Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune dates from 1928 and it is
an affectionate, humorous view of the composer's favourite hymns. The main
theme is based on the old Scottish melody that is sung in the Southern States
to many texts but most commonly to 'How Firm a Foundation'. Another familiar
hymn tune, 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me' appears as a secondary theme. The Symphony
has been described as 'simple, straightforward and folklorish in style, evoking
nineteenth-century rural America by its dignity, its sweetness and its
naïve religious gaiety.' It opens on a serene pastoral evocation with
lazy echoing horns and develops episodically with quirky humorous material
and ends with a rather 'farmyard' cadenza for trombone, piccolo, solo cello
and solo violin. The andante is song-like and contemplative with the odd
caustic or sour comment from the brass and it ends with a suggestion of a
distant railway train. The bright Allegretto is a passacaglia, strongly rhythmic
with a jazzy swagger. The concluding Alla breve was used by Virgil Thomson
in a slightly altered form as the finale of the film, The River.
The short (16½-minute) Symphony No. 2 in C major (1931-1941)
has a folksy, bucolic charm with trumpet riding high over cantering staccato
strings and woodwinds as the work opens. Virgil Thomson describes the work
thus - "The expressive character of this symphony is predominantly lyrical.
Dancing and jollity, however, are rarely absent from its thought; and the
military suggestions of horn and trumpet, of marching drums, are a constantly
recurring presence both as background and foreground." There is too, a tenderness
and old world charm (although brittle enough to be challenged by bugle calls
from the barracks even in the lovely andante) that for me dates the atmosphere
this work further back than its composition to the turn of the
18th/19th centuries. Beneath all, there is a concern for classical
elegance. The concluding Allegro scintillates.
The music for Symphony No. 3 (1972) (another brief 16½-minute
opus) was originally in his String Quartet of 1932, then it was intended
as ballet music for Thomson's opera Lord Byron but production problems
ensued. It begins most arrestingly and atmospherically with crescendoing
waves of cymbals and gong strokes and strident brass. But almost immediately
the mood relaxes and we hear the strains of dance music and for the rest
of the movement it is a clash of pompous and assertive masculinity and graceful
femininity. The following glorious Tempo di Valzer confirms that this work
belongs again to the turn of the previous century and the ballrooms of the
Hapsburgs with all their colour and glitter. The following andante has a
morose tenderness and the finale mixes the innocent elegance of a minuet
with all that martial material again.
Pilgrims and Pioneers (1964), was composed for a documentary film,
Journey to America, conceived for the New York World's Fair of that
year. The film charts the history of American immigration. It has to be said
that it is a predominantly austere morose work treating old hymns with a
deep melancholy. The gloom is lifted only sporadically. Not surprisingly
this is its premiere recording.
Notwithstanding Pilgrims and Pioneers, this is a very approachable
and attractive album