By CHARLES FERRUZZA
Painting by Alice Neel.
No one in Kansas City (besides myself) may give a damn, but today, Tuesday, November 25, is the 112th anniversary of the birth of Virgil Thomson. Virgil who?
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was once considered to be one of America’s most preeminent modern composers, although his reputation has lost some its luster over the years. In fact, most Kansas Citians have probably never heard of him. His childhood home is still standing at 2629 Wabash (it’s incorrectly listed as 2613 Wabash in several biographies of Thomson), but I’ll bet no one has ever thought of placing a plaque on the home, recognizing Thomson’s long contributions – as a composer and music critic.
Why? Dr. S. Andrew Granade, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance has some thoughts on how Thomson became a “forgotten man” in his own home town. “After Virgil left Kansas City to go to Harvard and, later, Paris,” Granade says, “he didn’t come back to Kansas City very often, although Kansas City and Missouri definitely influenced his work.”
Thomson brought the music of the Midwest, including his experience as the organist at the Calvary Baptist Church, to the symphonic work he created, including movie scores, like The Plow That Broke the Plains, an acclaimed documentary about the Dust Bowl from 1936. Thomson won the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a piece of music, for his Louisiana Story soundtrack in 1948.
Over the decades, Granade says, Aaron Copland has become the better-known face of American music, but Thomson was one of Copland’s influences. Thomson was considered a major musical star when he returned from Paris. His collaborators included Gertrude Stein, who wrote the texts for Thomson’s most famous operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All.
“Thomson deserves to be more recognized,” Granade says. “He created the idea of radical simplicity in his music. He stripped away so much, unmooring chords from their traditional function.”
“You can hear the influence of Missouri in his 'Symphony on a Hymn Tune’ from 1928,” Granade says, “and a new DVD version of the The Plow That Broke The Plains has recently been released.”
Happy 112th birthday, Virgil. Maybe someday you’ll get a plaque.
Trailer for the re-released Plow That Broke the Plains