Anthony Tommasini and Virgil Thomson: The Threads That Connect Us All

Speaking with Anthony Tommasini about his relationship with his mentor composer/critic Virgil Thomson, I found myself three steps away from Stein, Stravinsky, Picasso, Copland, Sibelius and many others who felt more alive to me than they ever have.

Anthony Tommasini and Virgil Thomson: The Threads That Connect Us All

Speaking with Anthony Tommasini about his relationship with his mentor composer/critic Virgil Thomson, I found myself three steps away from Stein, Stravinsky, Picasso, Copland, Sibelius and many others who felt more alive to me than they ever have.

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

The idea that we are all three steps removed from anyone is not an unfamiliar one, but I've always pictured those who I'm removed from to be alive and, well, not Gertrude Stein. But there is a string that weaves through time and if we tug on it every now and then it pulls us into history. Speaking with chief music critic of The New York Times and author Anthony Tommasini about his relationship with his mentor composer/critic Virgil Thomson, I found myself three steps away from Stein, Stravinsky, Picasso, Copland, Sibelius and many others who felt more alive to me speaking with Tony Tommasini than they ever have.

THOMSON: PORTRAITS, SELF-PORTRAITS & SONGS

The impetus of this conversation with Tony is the re-release of two discs of chamber music by Virgil Thomson titled, Thomson: Portraits, Self-Portraits & Songs. The discs feature performances by Tony Tommasini on piano, Sharan Leventhal on violin and friends. It’s worth noting that Tony’s writings have fundamentally molded my understanding of what it means to write about music; it was an honor to speak with him and an even greater one to share his story.

While revisiting Tony’s writings and reading and listening to everything that I could of Virgil Thomson’s work I noticed that same thread linking Thomson to Tommasini. This connection is not new information, Tony has written two books, including a biography, and multiple Times pieces about Virgil Thomson. But the idea that we are all directly connected to Virgil Thomson and his artistic circles by way of Tony’s writings is an intriguing one. I aim to shine a light on the synchronicities between the two as it shows up in their work.

MEETING VIRGIL

When Tony met the music titan Virgil Thomson, he was not yet the incredibly influential critic and author that we know today. It was the late 1980s, Tony was in his mid-thirties and had just been denied tenure at Emerson College. In response, he turned to criticism and found himself working as a freelance critic at the Boston Globe. While he had editors at the Globe, it is perhaps the mentorship of the then 90 year old composer/critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) that formatively shaped Tony’s music criticism. For two years, Tony would make Xerox copies of his print reviews after they were published and send a bunch of them at a time to Virgil. Then, he would head over to The Chelsea for his post-mortems with Virgil, who had his red pencil in hand.

Tony knew Virgil for the last ten years of his life and made the recordings which have been re-released after his death. The first recording was made in 1990 and the second in 1994, when Tony was an active pianist. The recordings were funded by two NEA grants that were part of a program to record overlooked American music. A spotlight shone on Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother Of Us All (libretto by Gertrude Stein) earlier this year when the New York Philharmonic staged it at the Met Museum in collaboration with Juilliard to commemorate women’s suffrage, but Thomson’s chamber music remains elusive. This re-release is the first time that these recordings will be available to stream, allowing this music to get more circulation and attention.

There are layers of praise and criticism that surround Thomson’s work; every major critic seems to have a strong opinion. Whether you are a fan of his or not, it’s undeniable that he was a powerhouse and molded American criticism and music. This piece is less of an examination of Virgil’s complicated character, which will only be briefly touched upon, and more of an exploration of how our teachers shape us, how music transcends categorization and the reverberations that formative mentorships carry. The many sides of Virgil Thomson are more closely examined in Tommasini’s piece for The New York Times, “An Essential Music Critic, but Nobody’s Role Model”, Alex Ross’ “The Happy Infamy of Virgil Thomson” for the New Yorker and David Allen’s “‘Virgil Thomson: The State of Music & Other Writings’ Paints a Troubling Portrait” in The New York Times.

IT’S HARD ENOUGH TO FIND OUT WHERE IT IS

During my research, one Virgil Thomson quote caught my attention as it feels particularly relevant. Thomson said, “Throughout the history of music all the trends exist in all the times…I don’t think it’s worthwhile to get excited or confused about the seeming not going anywhereness of music or art or painting. It’s much more interesting where it has been than where’s it’s going. Because you don’t know anything about where it’s going. It’s hard enough to find out where it is!”

Virgil’s quote reminded me of Tony’s foreword to his 2018 book, The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide. The foreword essentially shares the sentiments that we don’t know which contemporary works are the masterpieces in their time, and perhaps the obsessive question of perpetuity is amiss. This is why the book at large is a look back in time. “I think I’ve gotten closer over the years to the sentiment that Virgil expressed in that quote than I was even back then,” says Tony. “I do think that he was onto something, the idea of music not evolving. He didn’t mean that music didn’t change or that styles don’t change. Certain things happen and people react to it in the moment and music changes in response to that. But the idea that it progresses, that it gets continually more ‘modern’; he thought didn’t tell the whole story.”

The second reason that Virgil’s quote jumped out to me is that it made me think of Tony’s Schoenberg chapter from the same book. In it, he argues that Schoenberg’s mistake was proclaiming that he had developed the next stage in the evolution of music. “Schoenberg is a very good example, you could make a case that the problem he diagnosed was a problem. He thought there really was a crisis in tonality,” says Tony. “In this incredible leap he came up with this idea (twelve-tone technique), which was thrilling! I love all that music but the idea that it was the next stage in the language of music was all wrong. In his own generation, Bartok and Stravinsky, just to name two, found very different ways to also deal with the ‘crisis in tonality’ and yet not throw it all overboard.”

In many ways Virgil Thomson was of the same mindset as Schoenberg, but also asked what it meant to be a distinctly American composer. Together with Aaron Copland, Virgil realized that the days of Edward Macdowell were over and going to Europe to study music was no longer the golden path. “It wasn’t just that they looked back at sources of American music, cowboy tunes in Copland’s case, and folk songs, Appalachian music, church music, hymns, and jazz. That was part of it, but it was also this bracing directness,” says Tony. “Virgil’s particular thing is he felt that music had gotten much too pompous, serious and grand. He thought it needed a little debunking, a little playing around with. That’s why when he met Stein she was perfect for his purposes and Four Saints In Three Acts in a way is one of the most original and greatest American operas. And it’s also a kind of anti-opera! I think the people who appreciated it really got that.”

In The Indispensable Composers, Tommasini places composers in the firm context of their time while simultaneously explaining why their music defies categorization and crosses temporal boundaries. I find that Virgil Thomson’s music can function similarly, especially his collaborations with Gertrude Stein. I asked Tony about these parallels, which I described as ‘nonlinear’. “The word ‘nonlinear’ always seems to imply historical, and yet I have become much more fixed on the idea that it’s not a good way to look at things. Look at Sibelius. Virgil was wrong about Sibelius, he consigned it to this Late Romantic stuff,” says Tony. “Now we look back and listen, those symphonies are visionary! Where do you place them in a period? Are they not 20th century modern? Yet in a way they’re more modern than a lot of self consciously modern pieces. Virgil missed Sibelius, but he was close to that aesthetic. What piece is more radical in the 1920s than the song that opens the vocal album, ‘Susie Asado’? The bareness, simplicity and directness of it. Virgil was into that, where do you place it? Or late Beethoven, the string quartets. What era do they belong in? They’re beyond musical periods, off in some spiritual place. They’re full of fugues and in a way Beethoven is looking back to music’s origins, yet they seem otherworldly.”

MUSICAL PORTRAITS

‘Susie Asado’ is an example of the musical portraits that Thomson began in Paris, when he became acquainted with Stein. The portraits were inspired by visual artists in Paris and Stein, who had a habit of creating literary portraits. Additionally, his musical portraits were informed by the tradition of the musical portrait. Tony shared that there’s a whole history of composers who created musical portraits, including Elgar, Couperin and Schumann (ear-mark Schumann, as he was also a composer/critic). Virgil also had his own theory that the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was a collection of musical portraits. “Virgil got fascinated by the idea of spontaneity, and he wrote about that in the piece ‘The Discipline of Spontaneity,’” says Tony. “It was not easy to be spontaneous, you had to get yourself in a mindset and let it happen. He started doing these solo violin portraits following Stein’s method. He had his ‘subjects’ come and sit before him. It was a session. It wasn’t the actual appearance of the subject, just their vibes, their presence.”

In the working sessions, the subjects could do anything they pleased except talk to Virgil as he was working; he was not to be disturbed. “The best story, it’s in my Portrait book, is the Dora Maar portrait. In 1940 Picasso’s partner was the photographer/painter Dora Maar,” says Tony. “Dora came over to his place and Picasso came along, because he was very dubious about this whole idea ‘what is a musical portrait? It’s ridiculous!’. So Dora comes over and sits down and Picasso is sitting there watching. Dora’s portrait starts with this elegant, quirky, frilly thing and becomes sort of like a two-part invention. Then out of nowhere, this thumping bass figure comes. It intrudes and takes over the piece and rattles everything. After the intrusion the music takes the tone of, ‘what just happened?’. Virgil realized after the fact that Picasso got into the portrait! It’s really good circumstantial evidence that the portrait really is a portrait. He thought you know, your own inner life gets boring after a while. But someone else’s? Now that’s interesting.”

Musical portraits were Virgil’s way of channeling someone. My favorite portrait on the album is Thomson’s portrait of Anthony Tommasini, performed by Tommasini. “It was the middle of the 1984 presidential campaign, Mondale was running, and I was a big Democrat. I loved Geraldine Ferraro and they were running against Reagan of course,” says Tony. “So I was heading toward the Chelsea for my portrait and I wanted something to read. I picked up Newsday and it was at the time when Ferraro was being grilled for her husband’s finances. She was being held up by his business! Anyway, I come over and Virgil starts writing and I thought it was going to come out this kind of nice guy Italianate thing and it sort of starts that way with this nice little rising theme. Then all of a sudden these chords start happening that are clashing with each other and they’re all Major but they’re very dissonant, heavy and clashing. Virgil was very surprised that it came out that way and I was too. I realized that as I was reading about Geraldine Ferraro I was filled with righteous liberal indignation! And that side of me came out and it took over the portrait.”

Anthony Tommasini with Virgil Thomson, credit: Jeffrey Strong

Thomson’s portraits present instrumentalists with a unique curatorial opportunity, that of storytelling. “Whenever I play them I always tell little stories about the portrait subjects. People love it! Picasso’s portrait sounds like what you’d think of, or mine when I play my own,” says Tony. “It’s funny and Virgil knew this, that if you have a piece that’s a portrait of someone and these crazy things happen the audience just goes with it. They think, ‘oh that’s just another aspect of this person’, that it’s all coming from someone’s psyche. It’s a little like people who think that they don’t like dissonance but have no problem hearing film scores that are extremely saturated with dissonance. You’re hearing it differently.”

SEE WHAT I SEE

This element of teaching, which brightens Tony’s performances of Thomson’s portraits, directly translates to his outlook on the role of criticism. “You know I was a teacher of music for years. When I became a critic, I still felt like a teacher. What am I here for except to demystify music? Some critics don’t care if people agree with them, I want everybody who reads my reviews to agree with me. That’s my goal. To get people to see what I see.”

Here is a critical point. While Tony is not an active performer, he sees himself as a lifelong musician. Criticism and performance are simply two sides of the same thing, music. Today, it feels a bit unorthodox to be a composer/writer/performer. However, there is a long line of composer/critics in music history including Schumann, Debussy, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Lou Harrison.

In the 20th Century, Minna Lederman ran the journal ‘Modern Music’, which featured writings from prominent composers writing about each other’s work. Virgil wrote for her and liked her very much. When he got his position at The New York Herald Tribune in 1940, Virgil followed Lederman’s example and led the bandwagon of composer/critics. “It’s funny, in scholarship and academia and literature there was a whole tradition that continued right through the 20th century of writers writing about other writers,” says Tony. “But somehow that slipped away from criticism; Virgil was one of the people who thought ‘no, no, no we have to bring this back’. He also thought that composers know the most about music! They just do! But he had to find composers who could write about music; who could write for general audiences. The problem that we have writing about music is that it’s almost impossible to describe a musical piece in words; maybe that's what we love about it. Whatever anybody thinks about Virgil’s criticism, or whether he got something right or wrong, or whether he had an agenda, he was the best ever at describing music in the most everyday homespun language. It was a miracle, it remains a miracle. I try, but I’ll never be that good.”

THE POWER OF WORDS

Thomson understood and utilized the power of words, which is why his writings can be so remarkable. Of course, if you are good with words you also have the ability to make them sting on and off of the page. “He was one of the most erudite, charming, generous, splendid people to be around. There were dinner parties that he cooked in that tiny kitchen at the Chelsea Hotel that were just wonderful. But yes, he could be stinging. The thing that for me as a gay man was most poignant and disappointing was that he was kind of against gay liberation. He said, ‘when you went to see Gertrude and Alice it was perfectly clear that they were a couple. Everyone knew, but you did not use the word lesbian.’ Virgil lived in two realms. He had a catty gay circle in which he was flirtatious and campy, then his proper circle. With professionals and friends, you just didn’t mention this. Some of the closest friends he had in his life included several wonderful women, whom he adored. But even they did not directly mention his being gay. He just thought that you didn’t talk about it, that there would be a backlash. He never understood that talking about it went hand in hand with getting rid of the prejudice.”

Late in Thomson’s life, he granted Tommasini access to his documents and communications while Tommasini worked on his biography. Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997) was published after Thomson’s death and outed him as a gay man. Stories in the book include details from Thomson’s life including his 1942 arrest during a police raid near a secretive gay hangout and various racist incidents. Tony felt that the truth is best told by a friend. “With the people in our lives, we’re in their presence and we’re charmed by them, fascinated by them, or even love them. You have this other bond and you just put that part out of mind to focus on what you have. I think that was true for me, and all of Virgil’s friends, for Virgil. It was hard not to be swept away by him when he was at his best, and that was a lot of the time.”

While Tony’s was my favorite portrait on this album, the fourth movement of the Violin Sonata is my favorite track. In some ways it feels as though it’s a response to the Cynthia Kemper Fanfare that opens the album. It’s on the longer side in the context of the other works, clocking in at a little over five minutes. Perhaps it’s my imagination but in it I hear someone reckoning with themselves. The opening is like walking through honey. It comes to a flow and ends triumphantly, but it doesn’t resolve. Written in 1930, Virgil later recognized his only Violin Sonata as a self-portrait.

Anthony Tommasini with Sharan Leventhal

“NOBODY WAS WRITING THE WAY HE WROTE”

Thomson would teach a class in criticism every now and then, but not often. “I’m probably the closest he had to someone he could call his protégé. He really shaped me,” says Tony. “Now, conflict of interest, that’s different. Oh my gosh, what he got away with! He won the Pulitzer Prize for music while he was the chief critic at the Herald Tribune and conducted the NY Philharmonic in his own pieces! I think that his editors felt that in those days that as long as his conflicts of interest were obvious, that people would take that into account. Also, in a way, they didn’t care. Nobody was writing the way he wrote.”

Tommasini agrees with Thomson on one thing for certain; that reviewing new music and featuring new artists is the single most important role that the critic plays. “When Virgil put down conductors who didn’t conduct new music he was taking a stand on behalf of all composers. Maybe they weren’t conducting his music, but they also probably weren’t conducting any living composer’s music. That’s where I agree with his agenda,” says Tony. “Even a very good performance of the Eroica symphony, what can I say? We all know it, we all love it, it happened again! Whereas when Ash Fure writes a strange new piece for the New York Philharmonic, that’s where I’m crucial. It was essential for me to be at that performance on behalf of The Times. It’s not so essential for me to be at a standard rep program at the New York Philharmonic.”

One of Tommasini’s favorite pieces by Thomson is his ruthless 1951 column takedown of Rudolf Bing, the Met Opera manager at that time. Bing claimed that it was unnecessary to stage new operas as the public has no interest in contemporary music. This circles back to an earlier idea, that labeling which works of our time will be considered the ‘masterworks’ is a fool’s errand. The perceived success or failure of a new work gives little to no indication of its longevity. “Virgil in this stinging Sunday piece said that Bing showed a bankruptcy of vision and artistic principle,” says Tony. “And he said ‘great, the new Stravinsky opera gets one chance to become Carmen’. And by the way, Carmen bombed at its premiere. I say in the chapter on Beethoven in my book, that 10-12 years after the premiere of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony you can read this English critic saying that it makes no sense and is an incoherent piece. We forget that. So Virgil was absolutely right to champion living composers and new work, to want to give it a chance. With new music especially, I err on the side of being open minded.”

IT’S THE FIRST WORD

When initially pondering the influence that Virgil’s musical portraits have on Tommasini’s writing, the chapters in his Indispensable Composers book came to mind. While the legendary composers spring to life and jump off of the page in the book, I don’t think they’re portraits. They aren’t spontaneous. His reviews however are on a tight deadline. “I love it in a way, it’s pressure but I feel like it’s honest,” says Tony. “It conveys to the reader what this piece is and what it isn’t. Especially if it’s a new piece. I can say, ‘look, I heard this piece last night, this is what my impression was. If I thought about it some more or heard it again, maybe I’d feel differently.’”

Which brings us to the role of criticism within the ecosystem of contemporary classical music and Tony’s final story from our conversation. “I was once on a panel with Ned Rorem and he was telling me, ‘as a composer you write and work on a new piece until it’s premiered. Then the critic gets the last word’. I said ‘Ned, gee that’s just not the way I think of it. To me, the critic gets the first word. And there are going to be others following mine, but I’m first. It’s fun as a writer because think how many times the Eroica symphony has been described, but your new piece has not been described! It’s not the last word, at all. If I thought that I don’t think I’d like this job.”

A good testament to Tony’s sentiments is this piece. Whichever critic had the first word about these chamber pieces certainly didn’t have the last. By this point there are layers upon layers of conversations surrounding Virgil Thomson, his work, criticisms surrounding his work and criticisms of criticisms. There is no last word.

Virgil Thomson, credit: Christopher Cox
Virgil Thomson, credit: Christopher Cox

ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic for The New York Times. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. He has also covered musical theater and done Times Talks with Stephen Sondheim, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone.

Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Long Island, graduated from Yale University, and later earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. He taught music at Emerson College in Boston and gave workshops in nonfiction writing at Wesleyan University and Brandeis University. He is the author of three books, including a biography of the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, and is completing a fourth, a collection of essays on great composers to be published by Penguin Press.

As a pianist, he recorded two Northeastern Records compact discs of music by Thomson, both funded through grants he was awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before joining The Times, he covered music and theater for The Boston Globe. Over the years as a journalist he has also written about dance, jazz, rap, books and AIDS. He lives in Manhattan with his husband, Dr. Benjamin McCommon, a psychiatrist.

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