The Life You Give: Virgil Thomson *1896

Virgil Thomson, (born November 25, 1896, Kansas City, Missouri, USA ), American composer, conductor, and music critic whose forward-looking ideas stimulated new lines of thought among contemporary musicians.

Thomson studied at Harvard University and later in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, a noted teacher of musical composition. There he was influenced by early 20th-century French composers, especially the group known as Les Six, whose most prominent members were Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Francis Poulenc. Thomson wrote in a variety of styles, including Gregorian chant, variations on Baptist hymns, and neoclassicism, often combining traditional forms with contemporary techniques, marked by careful craftsmanship. The greatest influence on him was that of Erik Satie, and it found expression in clarity, simplicity, and humour.https://3d04139ab9993b56c8f24aa919cba862.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

His operas are among his best-known works; Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and The Mother of Us All (1947), the latter based on the life of Susan B. Anthony, boast libretti by Thomson’s close friend Gertrude Stein, an avant-garde American writer. A later opera was Lord Byron (1968), which combined and unified Thomson’s various compositional styles. His instrumental music included two symphonies, several symphonic poems, and concerti for cello and flute (composed 1950 and 1954, respectively).

Thomson composed songs, choral works, chamber music, piano pieces, and film music, including the scores for Pare Lorentz’s pioneering documentaries The River (1936) and The Plow that Broke the Plains (1937) and for Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (the film score of which won a Pulitzer Prizefor music in 1949). He was music critic for the New York Herald Tribune (1940–54) and published several collections of penetrating, perceptive critical articles. His autobiography, Virgil Thomson, was published in 1966. Among his other books were Music Revisited, 1940–54 (1967), American Music Since 1910 (1971), and Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson (1988). (Source: Britannica)


Listen with us to Thomson’s opera “The Mother of Us All” at the Opera, Blood and Tears Club, on Clubhouse, today at 1pm EST.

The Mother of Us All

Music by Virgil Thomson

Libretto by Gertrude Stein

Stein’s text for The Mother of Us All does not describe details of staging. Therefore, Thomson’s partner Maurice Grosser devised a scenario to facilitate staging the opera. Though Grosser stated that other scenarios were equally possible, his scenario is published in the printed score; this synopsis is based on it.

Act 1

Scene 1. Susan B. Anthony and her devoted companion Anne are shown at home. Anne is knitting; Susan B. is pasting clippings into a scrapbook. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. also appear as narrators.

Scene 2. A political meeting takes place, at which Webster, Johnson, Adams, Grant, Comstock, and Stevens are all present. Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen also appear, mocking the politicians’ solemnity. Susan B. introduces herself to the assembly, and she and Daniel Webster debate.

Scene 3. A public square in front of Susan B. Anthony’s house. Thaddeus Stevens argues with Andrew Johnson; there is a flowery love scene between John Adams and Constance Fletcher. Jenny Reefer begins waltzing with Herman Atlan, and everyone joins in the dance.

Scene 4. Susan B. Anthony meditates on the difficulties of her mission.

Scene 5. Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot are to be married. As the wedding party gathers, various episodes unfold. John Adams courts Constance Fletcher, Daniel Webster (who is to perform the ceremony) addresses Angel More in sentimental language. Indiana’s brother bursts in, wishing to prevent the marriage, and Susan B. explains what marriage means to women. General Grant calls for order, and Jo teases him for his pomposity. It seems that the wedding is all but forgotten, but finally Daniel Webster blesses the couple and Susan B. foretells that all of their children, men and women, will have the vote.

Act 2

Scene 1. Susan B.’s home. Susan B. is doing housework when she learns that she will be asked to address a political meeting. Jo the Loiterer complains that Indiana Elliot refuses to take his last name. When Susan B. is invited to speak, she declines, then agrees, hesitates again, but finally goes off to the meeting.

Scene 2. The meeting has taken place and Susan B. returns home triumphantly. She has spoken so convincingly that the politicians, now afraid of the women’s suffrage movement, have written the word “male” into the Constitution in order to make it impossible for women to vote. Indiana Elliot has decided to take Jo’s last name, and he will take hers; they will become Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Everyone congratulates Susan B. for her leadership.

Scene 3 (Epilogue). Some years later, a statue of Susan B. Anthony is to be unveiled at the U. S. Capitol. The characters gather for the ceremony, with Anne as guest of honor. Susan B. enters as a ghost, though Anne does not see her. Constance Fletcher appears, now almost blind. Other characters talk about women’s suffrage, or burst in tipsily. The ceremony threatens to get out of hand. Suddenly, Virgil T. unveils the statue. The women lay wreaths at the base of the pedestal. All slowly depart. Alone, Susan B. Anthony (as the statue) sings of the struggles and lessons of her long life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: