David LoebelConductor David Loebel writes about works he has programmed with the NEC Symphony on February 4, with a focus on Virgil Thomson's First Symphony, an "anti-symphony" written for a Dada-groomed world of the arts that could also allow for anti-ballets and anti-operas.

When a Symphony Is Not a Symphony

Ever since Beethoven’s Eroica, the symphony has been the vehicle of choice for composers wanting to make a big statement. Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh (arguably his finest) is an excellent example of a grand, rhetorical Romantic symphony.

A big statement was the farthest thing from Virgil Thomson’s mind when he completed his Symphony on a Hymn Tune in 1928. As Thomson once described Erik Satie’s music, the symphony “eschew[s] the impressive, the oratorical, everything that is aimed at moving mass audiences. It [values] quietude, precision, acuteness of auditory observation, gentleness, sincerity and directness of statement.”

While a student at Harvard, Thomson discovered Satie and gave the first American performance of Satie’s Socrate (which NEC’s Chamber Orchestra will perform on April 15). Satie and Thomson were both influenced by Dada, a precursor of surrealism that had begun in Switzerland during World War I. Dadaist artists, poets, and playwrights sought to protest the war by stripping away everything that made art logical or grandiose. In Satie’s music this meant a rejection of motivic development and a willing embrace of absurdity. His ballet Parade, for instance, mocked the conventions of traditional ballet with a score that included typewriters, pistols, and sirens.

Similarly, Thomson’s settings of texts by Gertrude Stein are unconcerned with meaning or a coherent narrative. The music arises from the mere sound of the words, as in this typical passage from the Thomson/Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts:

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer
shorter yellow grass. Pigeons large
pigeons on the shorter longer yellow
grass alas pigeons on the grass.

If Parade can be seen as an anti-ballet and Four Saints as an anti-opera, then Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune is surely an anti-symphony. It shares little with a traditional symphony other than its four-movement layout, including the traditional slow second movement, dance-like third movement, and triumphant finale. The symphony is actually based on two hymn tunes that Thomson remembered from his Missouri boyhood (“How Firm a Foundation” and “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”), but neither hymn is developed in the manner of Beethoven, Dvorak, or countless other symphonists. Rather, the hymns are starkly juxtaposed against Renaissance chants, waltzes, marches, a barn dance, and two quintessentially American sounds: the moan of a distant train whistle and the chiming of a mantel clock. Perhaps, the literal definition of “symphony” (“sounding together”), best describes Symphony on a Hymn Tune, whose radical simplicity anticipated the rejection of modernism’s cerebral complexity by such composers as John Cage, Philip Glass, and many others.

A Personal Reminiscence

Although primarily known as a composer, Virgil Thomson was also one of the finest writers about music our country has produced. From 1940 to 1954, he was chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune; his reviews and columns from that newspaper have recently been reissued in a comprehensive collection edited by Tim Page.

As a graduate student, I spent several days one summer chauffeuring and generally looking after Mr. Thomson while he was teaching at a workshop for aspiring critics. I had been told that he was famous for nodding off during concerts; indeed, the sight of him sound asleep as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra let loose one of its trademark fortissimos remains an unforgettable image. When he awoke he turned to me and cheerfully asked, “Did I miss anything?”

Even more memorable were his scathing evaluations of the young critics’ reviews. He detested clichés (he called them “bromides”) and insisted that adjectives be used with laser beam specificity. If one of the students said that a performance was “terrific,” “splendid” or “marvelous,” she had better know the precise Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word or risk a withering rebuke. In his prose, as in his music, Mr. Thomson sought clarity and elegance; I dare not imagine what he would make of a world in which the construction “I’m like” is considered an acceptable substitute for “I said.”

Years later I found myself in Kansas City, Mr. Thomson’s birthplace, and, on a bright, cold February day, I made the two-hour drive to Slater, Missouri, his ancestral home. I stood by his grave in a tiny rural cemetery while across the road at a well-kept farm, livestock roamed against a beautiful backdrop of spacious, rolling Midwestern hills. The open fifths that begin Symphony on a Hymn Tune suddenly made all the sense in the world.