virgil thomson: writing about music

TompkinsWeb1Jeff Tompkins at The Brooklyn Rail:

The first pages of the Library of America’s new collection make it clear that when Virgil Thomson was named head music critic of the New York Herald Tribune in the fall of 1940, he came in spoiling for a fight. At that time, New York’s staid musical establishment was still in thrall to the 19th century and the Austro-German tradition, whereas Thomson was not only an ardent Francophile—he lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940, fleeing one step ahead of the Nazis in June of that year—but a composer of avant-garde tendencies whose opera Four Saints in Three Actsboasted a libretto by Gertrude Stein.

His opening salvos aimed at fat targets: Brahms’s music, Thomson informed his readers, is “timid and over-respectful of the past,” devotion to it “the mark of a quite definite musical conservatism”; Sibelius was “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description”; the violinist Jascha Heifetz produced “silk-underwear music”; and the playing of the New York Philharmonic (in Thomson’s inaugural review, no less) was “dull and brutal.”

The Library of America volume,Music Chronicles 1940–1954, restores to print four collections of Thomson’s criticism from the years indicated, along with a miscellany of previously uncollected pieces.

more here.