thumbnail of The music makers; Virgil Thomson
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
This is Virgil Thompson. It's hard for me to explain to young I think. What happens to you when you get oh. I don't know anybody any musician over 50 who can bear this stuff. Michigan State University radio presents the music makers. Today's guest is Virgil Thompson. As composer and critic Mr. Thompson has been one of the most versatile musicians of this century. Born in Kansas City in 1896 Virgil Thompson soon departed the Midwest to continue his music studies in Boston and later in Paris under Nadiya belongs J. A prolific composer whose works include operas film scores symphonic works concertos chamber music piano pieces songs and a variety of other works in diverse forms. As a music critic Virgil Thompson was a
regular contributor to several magazines early in his composing career. His first book the state of music appeared in 1939 in the following year he was offered the post of music critic on the New York Herald Tribune a position he held for 15 stormy years. Mr Thompson is still active as a composer and his critical essays continue to provide penetrating insights into contemporary music life. Mr. Thompson is host were these conversations Pat Forde. I wonder whether you feel that there is a general international trend in music now and less of what might call American music being written or French music being written this kind of thing that American and French being written. It's just that another kind of thing also goes on. The far out school today. It's a very international school it's not nationalistic at all.
It's very neutral. And the composers have it in the methods of it are as interchangeable as the you know pieces of an automobile. Of course the symphony orchestra itself is completely International a standardized instrument with every card in it replaceable out of any other machine. But the international repertory usually makes small or spends a small proportion of its time. Let's say a 5 to 15 percent on a local or national product frequently reflecting local or national tastes.
I think the new kind of abstraction is to me a new trick. It comes partly as a. Delayed reaction to abstract the abstract painting of said 30 40 years ago. But the new impetus since the last war really comes from Europe and largely from Germany because with the partition of Germany. The German speaking peoples living in East Germany where Germany and Austria have ceased to be a cultural unit. Consequently no German musician or German
poet novelist or. Is capable of being or is capable of speaking for the German peoples. He wouldn't have the right to. And he wouldn't even have the right to feel that he could or ought to. Consequently the only thing that a German artist can aspire to speak far is the new Europe. And the new Europe is the Europe of the common market of course it is the Europe where the customs barriers are down and little by little international labor laws will prevail and there will be exchange of workmen the same as there is a change of manufactured and agricultural products. All this is partly our future but it's also a great deale fact. And it's as a fact it is much
needed. By a country which is no longer a cultural unit it's Germany. Are a German speaking region which is not a government now. I think that is why the Germans have taken over. They have the money and they have the need for making a new kind of music and they've taken over the leadership in publication and performance of them yet. Not necessarily in composition. The best composers most of them are not German. Their privilege was French burial who is Italian police service or Belgian. There's a Swede or a two and. A very brilliant Greek name ten Iraqis. But the money is in German aid the organization is in Germany.
The. Power concentration for getting their music commissioned taped and performed is there the central figure being Dr Heinrich Strobel the director of the radio and by the by. Himself a poet the man of letters a very intelligent fellow. Who was kind of music to be strong and powerful as long as the combine holds together I don't know I am not going to prophesy. Everywhere it's fair it's quite urgent in Europe and everybody knows everybody does it a great many young people find it interesting to do and find some future in it. And the national radio establishments lend facilities for manipulating tape. There's been a laboratory parrot radio since 1945 1952
in Milan It was shortly after that where any legitimate composer can go and work these are public institutions available like libraries. All we have here really is a little institute up at Columbia University which is very exclusive. And very late being established contemporary far out composition in its relation to the radio is protected there in Germany the radio had money and there is a tie up but when radio people and the publishers and they also build the far out composer's own pressure groups and they have as a little come by and do some broadcasting but absorb a certain amount of money.
And this is an international kind of deal because the exchanges these broadcasts and there are meetings in the fall. I get done away singing. Where they put all their art music together. All that kind of music of the Common Market. You know it's the new Europe. With no folklore allegiance no connection to any given country do you. I don't again things bad except too much music around me and I can cut that off. By staying home and running again about anything anybody wants to do. Musically speaking is perfectly alright as long as it doesn't interfere with me. Or you're not polluting a stream and killing all the fish by.
Making music in any particular way. But I'm convinced that they are polluting my stream when I get on an airplane. I had have to wait till the thing takes off before this filthy loop. Stops buzzing in my ear. I don't know whether the idealism behind electronic music or abstract music is runs as high in America as in Europe anyway. The word electronic means something quite different here. Americans get excited by the word but they're not excited by what the word means in Europe. Four or five years ago the Columbia group 1961 to be exact. Gave its first concert of musical been composed electronically.
And if To me there are a great deal of newspaper writing quarreling all sorts of things but terrific amounts of space. So much so that in one week I was called up by four different magazines and asked if I would write articles about electronic music. And dualism. I said no I didn't know enough to read the. Article. Also I didn't think there really was enough of it around certainly not around here. Had to do very much with I've read it. It's in its infancy in about all you can do with it is to coo at it. And then I get to figure why they also electronic music. And it occurred to me that semantically as the boys would say how the word is weighted in the United States.
We won the last war with an electronic bomb site. And everybody knows that with an electronic bomb site you can drop a bomb in a barrel from 30000 feet. That's military power. Since the war the electronics firms are quoted on the stock exchange have been doing very well. Electronics also means financial power. So get the word electronic is weighted by both war and Manning. Weighted so heavily that almost everybody can think well. Electronic music got to be quite wonderful too. So far as I know electronic music has not made any
such. Splice in the world as the electronic bombsite electronics manufacturers. I asked Mr. Copeland what it was whether he thought electronic music was very strong as influence and direction of contemporary music and he said I think it's a swing of the pendulum. But it seems like that now that more can be said in terms of the influence of electronic music on contemporary composition and so you tell them you know hardly anyone likes of course the young people who rag string quartets and orchestral pieces for individualized groups and so forth are allowed to be dominated by electronic sounds and they make it make everything
well sound not like a romantic past you're not oh our vibrato. They make it sound like question who he and did the string quartets. But you know you can always find ancestors you know. And said she embodies a very popular ancestry right now. That's where they're looking but they can fight it out in Malapi or if they were looking there to a close and if I was you found found caja 16 radios break it he gets batches of things are going it went in a sense by foundations and so forth. Fostering the production of a great deal of electronic music and so forth. In a sense. We're squeezing out an any other kind of music that might be composed by the composers who are
creative and talented. So what I mean infants are you assuming that. When one fellow is paid to write a piece of music you are squeezing out the fellow that is not paid. You are getting very close to something that is very close to true which is that the practice of the richer foundations. Commissioning orchestral works and paying for extra rehearsal time for the orchestra to learn the work. Are a little bit conditioning the orchestras not to play works that are not commissioned because they have to pay for their own rehearsal time. Now that is not yet universally true. Various. Symptoms of our inconveniences have been turning up. Regarding the. Foundational intervention in music.
In the opera houses too. It's beginning to be a little funny. They commissioned works. I commissioned. By the people that are going to produce them by a kind of production team. Consequently the composure is. Likely to be expected to write the kind of thing that that team feels it can produce the best. You're in a stock company system. It's as if you could only give courses in college for which the library had books Ordinarily we ask the library to get some more books for going to give a fire of course use it. But. And actually for far far our original operatic conceptions edge usually
desirable too. Get fresh. Talent in for the direction and decoration even sometimes for singing. It can even be. A little inconvenient. But we hear all the operas especially the new ones. Sung by the same singers. That's the system of films where you see Miss So-and-So. You don't see her as anybody you will only see her as Mrs. So and So no matter what the play is. And that is what tends to happen in our stock company opera houses not only do they do these commissions tend to create our press for a certain team but they tend to create a bridge of a certain acoustical sadness which is
that of the house where it is to be produced. So nobody really knows whether they operate with a big orchestra and a lot of loud soloist is really the ideal farm for American opera to crystallise in. But that's the only form you are paid in advance to Radium. Say it's a farm inherited from Europe's 19th century but I have I just don't go to hear music you know. I have to have pretty strong motivation. What do you go to hear. Now I mean you do it you go to hear something or I'm wondering what do you mean musical taste. What are the kinds of things that draw you into a concert hall or what isn't kinds of things so much as it's connections some close friend is having an important work played. And so naturally I think be rude not to go.
Or somebody awfully nice is playing a piece of mind. So I think maybe I really ought to turn up. And sometimes people will invite me to the opera but I think that's oh it's very disappointing IMO to say no thank you. It's hard for me to explain to young persons like you have. What happens to you when you get old. I don't know anybody any musician hardly over 50 who can bear the stuff. You can write it of course you can write it and you can rehearse it you can perform it. But do you consume it of course not. Then what is the motivation for writing an old habit. More than that it's whatever the old habit came from. You still have the impulse and the desire
to work but if you're like the writers who say I don't read books I write them. Or I've felt that way for years Fred says about churches. I spent my years as a church organist and choir master but political a great many years since I had felt comfortable anywhere in a church except the backstage in the choir room I had in the choir loft I'm perfectly at home. The backstage of religion to be used like a black dead that I can't be a customer. Mr. THOMPSON How does an aspiring composer in this country begin to prepare himself. Well they ask me a good sized maternelle graph to find out for themselves what they need water or can take. You see people didn't really have to go to Europe to study musical composition as long as during
or showed bad Hindemith Di years MEO. When they transferred and now you will always hear we're all here. Since the war. Two of those have gone to Europe. And Schoenberg has died. And I hear Bill Roche age 77 this year in September the old Pedagog are not being replaced here they are in Europe. They are strongest composition teacher probably in the world would be Olivier misyar impaired. It's
hard to get lessons from him. Not that he's rich she's just good. He just didn't answer letters or the telephone. And he doesn't want BO to be bothered by ill prepared American students are they for the most part in his set yes. In your sense I think they're abominably prepared. Every now and then I have been a visiting professor at some American University and as a visiting professor usually takes a few composition students. A few you take all that are really good. They can't harmonize the Corel. They can't. They can write bump in a responsible counterpoint in a few of them that have worked at radio stations or in jazz can work straight a little bit.
But no conception of harmony at all. Now the far out teachers in Europe all work on the basis of a classical education. Pierre Boulez Levy. They like TS Eliot defending Latin and Greek. But American colleges and conservatories don't get too much. Instruction of a practical nature of the composing students they get an awful lot of music culture they're given logic courses and listening. But I tell you they come out of there even as enemies unable to harmonize or corral the American Music faculties. Well I don't really see that like a row of dominoes that goes down at once if you upset
anything. Or it's like some sort of boxed in situation. You can't be a composer in America. Very few exceptions unless you have a job teaching in the university. And you can't have a job teaching music in a university unless you have a degree in music from a university so that it's all become sort of in-grown. There's no window on the outside world. So with the whole thing boxed in that way they can so easily forgive one another's weaknesses. All those Irish musicians they love one another's music. They know it's no damn good.
This is a desperate you could say well there are academics all over the world. But European academics are not boxed in. They don't have to move from one university to another. They don't have to be prepared at the conservatory where they're going to teach. Also at least at the Paris Conservatory the students are not even examined by their teachers examined by outsiders. I've been on those juries those juries are made up of reputable magicians. Who are not members of the faculty. The piano students can be judged by a jury consisting of Arthur Rubinstein and girls and I don't know half a dozen persons French or not French but who are professional pre-allocated you know the business. Their teachers are present at the examination to defend the students a little bit to explain that he can't be expected to know this because he hasn't been taught that but in
whatever he has been taught he can be judged by worldwide professional standards. Now that it that keeps the windows open. So that the string quartet students are not just going to play for a couple of violent teachers they're going to play for the court at sea. Same with an above the kind of composers or compositions we're going to have in the next generation. Oh I don't know Ira will keep me off the project because you see you can always complain about something you did. The faults of any situation is visible but you don't know what my club is going to kill of the one that is giving you the cold. There may be other very benevolent micro ground. You do feel most of our schools of music are reactionary though they think they're
extremely advanced. How about professional schools like Eastman or Juilliard or. New England. They're tops. They're really quite wonderful I wouldn't trust them to foreign competition but they're top shit for. What is now laughingly called the performing arts. I say laughingly because it's all tied up with real estate and slum parents but death and the performing arts do exist I mean musical ex-gays execution is a classical and wonderful take and we were all brought up brothers how anybody starts you know you don't start by writing you start by performing it. Their faculty are not salaried. They're red. If they can get landed rows and shelves of folks add Rosina Levine and have guys can pull it out such a paper like that to teach they teach the number
of hours a week that they wish they had paid a commission on their intake of students. It's nothing for a man to raise a family on. But it's very advantageous for the school and for the students because you get as the medical schools do the very best to have professionals working there and establishing standards but the trouble is because every situation matters or not enough of them. That was Virgil Thompson our guest on the music makers this is Ken beach we're hoping that you've enjoyed the series of conversations with prominent Americans whose art and business is music. The programs were produced by Pat Ford at Michigan State University Radio under a grant from National Educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
The music makers
Virgil Thomson
Producing Organization
Michigan State University
WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-v40jz87h).
Episode Description
This program focuses on composer and critic Virgil Thomson.
Series Description
Distinguished Americans discuss their profession of music, from composition to criticism; the business of music and its current place in our national culture.
Broadcast Date
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Interviewee: Thomson, Virgil, 1896-1989
Interviewer: Smyth, Henry De Wolf, 1898-1986
Producer: Ford, Pat
Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-6-10 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:30
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “The music makers; Virgil Thomson,” 1966-02-14, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 23, 2024,
MLA: “The music makers; Virgil Thomson.” 1966-02-14. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 23, 2024. <>.
APA: The music makers; Virgil Thomson. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from