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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 23, 2004

VIRGIL THOMSON

3 nights ago I posted about a "Music Ho!," a mostly delightful (and occasionally racist) book on the contemporary classical music scene of 1934 by a then-29-year-old English composer named Constant Lambert. I mentioned that I learned more and laughed more from the book than I had from reading the much-touted music criticism of George Bernard Shaw, who along with Virgil Thomson, is often mentioned as one of the 2 top classical music critics. I mentioned having read Thomson years ago and having remembered nothing about it.

The very next day, Friday, while taking a break on a drive between work meetings, I found "The State of Music" by Virgil Thomson for 60 cents in a used bookstore. Written in 1939 when Thomson was around 40 (I'm esti-guessing) and revised in 1961. Read the first couple chapters and skimmed the rest.

Thomson and Lambert both blast the neo-classical tendency of the 1930s, and Thomson gets a few digs against his (unnamed) compatriot Aaron Copland which I appreciated. (He made a snide remark about the fashion of quoting folk tunes in accessible '30s classical, which confirmed something I had just e-mailed someone a couple days ago, that the massive quote of "Lord of the Dance" a/k/a "Simple Gifts" at the end of Copland's otherwise lovely "Appalachian Spring" really mars it for me.) Thomson and Lambert agree that music had changed very little, technically, since the first world war. They agree about a lot.

I ended up skimming Thomson's book because it's an extremely generalized sketch of classical music social and economic life in the '30s, with only a little bit of musical description. What little there is, is good -- he has a good riff on the 2 schools of orchestration, the Germanic, which builds up massive powers of sound in unisons, and the Franco-Russian founded by Berlioz and followed by Rimsky-Korsakoff, Debussy, Stravinsky, and others, which avoids unisons and brings the instruments into sharper, more brilliant focus among each other. And he made a sharp insight that the early masters of sonata form -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven -- never ever spoke of sonata form, and they never used it the same way twice. I don't know enough to know whether that's true, but it was interesting, and I'll listen for it.

2 things bugged me though. First, Thomson makes a plug that Viennese music from 1750 to 1850 is the pinnacle of western music, period amen. He doesn't name names, but he's talking about the 3 big names mentioned in the last paragraph, plus their immediate followers Schubert and Mendelssohn (I'm guessing here, and too late in the night to look anything up). Lambert's approach appeals to me much more -- his big 3 exemplars are Mozart (paradigmatic aristocratic-era composer), Moussorgsky (paradigmatic nationalist composer), and Wagner (paradigmatic Romantic), and he talks about the spiritual-emotional-political backgrounds of each style, how the backgrounds inform the styles, and the limitations and glories of the styles.

The other thing -- Thomson speaks on the level of generality to the degree that if I hadn't just read Lambert's book, I would have had no idea what he was talking about a lot of the time. He hardly ever names names, and in fact the only two 20th century composers Virgil Thomson speaks of explicitly approvingly by name are Virgil Thomson and some other guy I'd never heard of and whose name I don't remember. Maybe I'll look it up after some sleep.

If this guy is one of the 2 greatest critics ever, why, he must be one of the 2 greatest 20th century composers ever too.

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