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The centenary of the American composer who died in 1984 falls on April 21. He's not to be confused with the differently spelt composer-critic Virgil Thomson, whose Gertrude Stein operas and a massive biography have kept him in the news. Both Thomson and Thompson were good Harvard men but Virgil's home from home was Paris and Randall's Rome, where he was recognised in 1959 as a Cavaliere Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana.

Thompson has been consistently known for his idiomatic choral music. At one time every church choir sang his Alleluia - there were 14 different recordings by 1980, two of which Thompson conducted himself. Its premiere was at the inaugural session of what would become the famous Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Mass. in 1940. In the 1994 Proms the BBC patronised Thompson rather unfortunately by including excerpts only of his significant 1936 cantata for unaccompanied chorus, The Peaceable Kingdom. I remember Boris Ord conducting this work with obvious relish in King's Chapel, Cambridge, in the mid-1950s. Everything sounded well in a musical idiom that now seems not far removed from the stripped-down minimalism of Part or Tavener. Otherwise it is the CD catalogue which has rescued Thompson and enabled him to reach a wider audience in the 1990s.

Thompson was also a fluent symphonist, writing the kind of music that was felt to be particularly American in the 1930s and 40s - spacious and diatonic, close to Roy Harris or Rubbra, but without the individuality of Copland or the polish of Piston. All three Thompson symphonies are on CD and there are now three recordings of No.2. This was written in 1931, was premiered under Howard Hanson, whose own music has been revived, and went on to achieve considerable popularity.

Thompson's pupils at Harvard included Leonard Bernstein who paid him back in the best possible way by conducting his Symphony No.2 and recording it in 1968, a very different climate from the one in which it was composed.

Thompson was born in New York into a New England family and went to a school in New Jersey where his father taught English. At Harvard he studied with Edward Burlinghame Hill, a composer sympathetic to the latest in French music, and Archibald T. Davison, director of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. This active choral tradition turned out to be influential for Thompson and for other Harvard composers such as Virgil Thomson and Elliott Carter. Thompson also had some lessons with Bloch before an orchestral prelude inspired by Edna St.Vincent Millay gained him the American Prix de Rome. When he returned to the US in 1925 he began a conscientious academic career at various universities from coast to coast and finally back at Harvard from 1948-65.

One of Thompson's most characteristic choral works is Frostiana, settings of seven well-known poems by the New England poet Robert Frost. At his best Thompson has some of the qualities of Frost, reaching his audience in a plain-spoken direct idiom which is appealing after the complexities of much of this century.

Copyright © Peter Dickinson, April 21st 1999





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