Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post recognized the 123rd anniversary of the birth of the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). That Music History Monday post focused on the particular pitfalls when a practitioner (in Thomson’s case, a composer) deigns also to become a critic. Today, we turn to Thomason’s music.

As a composer, Thomson has been variously described as a “modernist”, a “neoclassicist”, and a “neoromantic”, terms that when taken altogether are pretty much neo-useless. Like Charles Ives (1874-1954) before him, Thomson was profoundly affected by the music he heard and played while growing up: popular parlor songs and dance music, Protestant hymns, ragtime, children songs, and band music. But unlike Ives, who spent his compositional life subjecting the musical experiences of his childhood to an increasingly modernistic musical treatment, Thomson’s music retained a certain childlike innocence and wonder to the end, displaying a directness of expression and simplicity of utterance that together elevate “naiveté” to a stylistic aesthetic.

Thomson’s ability to employ musical Americana in a manner both naive and yet powerfully affecting is clearly demonstrated in his Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1926-1928, a work that anticipates many aspects of Aaron Copland’s so-called “populist style”, which was still some ten years in the future at the time Thomson composed his symphony.

Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 25, 1896. He started his piano lessons at the age of five; according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“For the rest of his life Thomson remembered evenings at the house with parlor songs, hymns and ‘darn-fool ditties’ sung around the piano; an uncle’s banjo playing; and band concerts in the parks (where he heard excerpts from the Wagner operas for the first time). All of these American vernacular idioms would influence his mature musical style.”

By the time Thomson was a teenager he was performing as both an organist at the family’s Calvary Baptist Church and as a pianist at (silent) movie house. 

On graduating from high school, Thomson enrolled at the Kansas City Polytechnic Institute. But his education was cut short by America’s entry into World War I in 1917. He enlisted in the army, and after having received training in aviation (in Texas) and radio telephony (at Columbia University), he served in a field artillery unit. While his unit received its orders to embark for France, the war ended before it could do so. He was discharged soon after.… continue reading to learn more about Virgil Thomson and the “prescribed” work and recording, only on Patreon!

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