RANDALL THOMPSON CENTENARY
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