06.20.2011

I recently read Virgil Thomson‘s book Music With Words: A Composer’s View, which has as its subject pretty much what you’d expect from the title. I was a little disappointed in the book itself, but he had two passages where he talked about the state of modern composition that I thought were interesting. Here they are:

Symphonic composition, either [in England or America], I have little faith in. And chamber music everywhere is chiefly tolerable today as an experiment in methodology. Writing more solo works for the pianoforte, the organ, the violin, or the cello is looking backward to the masters who by creating for these instruments with so comprehensive a palette actually patented, and exhausted, the gamut of feelings that anybody now living can find urgent in the sound of those instruments. There is still fun to be had with woodwinds maybe, just maybe. And the concert song in English is, I fear, a never-never land from which few invaders bring home booty.

But opera composed in English is still unfinished business, worth working at, and possibly, in view of what has happened since 1930 both in the United Kingdom and with us [in America], possibly alive and certainly wiggling. (page x, in the Preface)

Choral writing goes on busily everywhere with great expertness, with the best intentions, and with enough good musical ideas to keep the choirs a part of the modern-music establishment. Opera writing too goes on apace, though with little sympathy, I must say, from the great houses anywhere except in France, and occasionally in England. But opera is all the same the musical domain where music’s life is least nearly extinct. Symphonic composition? Dead as a doornail. Important piano works? Yes, there are many. Chamber music has still some life in it too, though not much liberty. Musical fun and games, let’s face it, are today in the musical theater. And I don’t mean the theater of dancing, where audiences avid for bodies pay little attention to sound. I mean the singing stage, both popular and classical. In both these domains activity is constant. Should miracles begin to happen there none need be surprised. And not just one miracle but a chain of them, a going-on phenomenon of the kind that happens somewhere in music about every half-century with seemingly no preparation, no reason for it, and no promise in it save for the fact that it does keep going on.

That I should like to see; and indeed I may see it, since it is almost the only door in classical music still ajar. (page 25)

Thomson wrote the book in 1989 (and thus did not live to see the miracles he wrote of, since he died later that year). Now, 22 years later, what do you think? Do you agree with his thoughts on the various genres alive and lifeless in classical music? Were they true at the time? Are they true now? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post, but first I want to hear yours!

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