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An American Musical Identity

Virgil Thomson was a modern-day American critic and composer. After graduating from Harvard University, Thomson moved to Paris to continue his studies. Returning to America, Thomson established himself in New York City, where he composed several operas and also critiqued music for the New York Tribune. He was a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal in 1989.

Since its conception as a country, America has always been trying to produce its own identity. This struggle for distinctiveness has often manifested itself in the arts—music, in particular. Virgil Thomson’s American Music Since 1910 attempts to highlight the origins of the unique American style of music. Focusing on several prominent composers in America history, Thomson traces how American music has evolved within the 20th century. While American music originated as chiefly European, the year 1910 presented itself as a watershed. Since then, America “has been less and less involved with the expressive urgencies of continental Europe and more and more with [its] own heritage of feeling.”1

In the beginning of the book, Thomson gives the entirety of American musical history in a microcosm. The 1910s was primarily marked by the birth of blues and jazz through the collection of Negro spirituals. The 1920s was characterized by the “appearance of radically modernist composers” due to changes in the teaching of composition.2 Also, this time saw the establishment of three remarkable music schools: the Julliard in New York, the Curtis in Philadelphia, and the Eastman in Rochester.  The 1930s was distinguished by the expansion of symphony orchestra in virtually every small town and school, along with the expansion of music in such forms such as opera, film, and ballet. The 1940s once again was a period of radical changes in composition—especially in rhythm and sound—with the introduction of electronic equipment. Also in this first section, Thomson describes American musical traits as originally a melting pot of other countries’ musical forms. Thomson explains that “the sources of American practice in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration methods, and musical structure are indeed chiefly continental European.”3 From Africa, American composers have derived concepts of percussion and polyrhythm, and from Asia, concepts of polymodality and tone. America has wrestled with developing its own musical identity throughout the century, but Thomson argues that by 1970, America was finally successful in creating a musical speech notably different from that of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The beginnings of this new identity are described in the second part of the book. Thomson introduces Charles Ives, a New-England born composer who worked as a successful insurance salesman for majority of his life. Keeping his composing career underground, Ives was never discovered until years after his death. Ives’s musical characteristics are epitomized through his “Concord” Sonata: the use of “free dissonant counterpoint, of multiple metrics, of polychordal and polytonal harmonic textures” and the preference of “substance [over] manner.”4 In short, Ives’s composing style can be described in one word: “free”—a transcendentalist-esque style of composing different from many European composers at the time. Thomson juxtaposes Ives with Carl Ruggles, a technically perfect composer who emphasized homogeny in his works. Ruggles’s compositions are described as having a “planned spontaneity” with a flavor of “mysticism.”5 While Ives broke musical rules to emphasize substance, the music of Ruggles was far more intensely conceived and perfected. However, unlike Ives’s music, Ruggles’s music seemed to resemble the works of several European composers at the time.

Thomson next describes the evolution of American music through Aaron Copland—“the best [America has] got” in regards to composition.6 Having befriended Copland early in his career, Thomson praises Copland for his professionalism and his peace-making ability. Thomson systemizes Copland’s work into three stylistic periods. The first thirty years of his life, a period of “non-programmatic, non-local-color work,” were marked by the conception of deeply moving works.7 The next ten years of his life were marked by a style of abstraction epitomized by the Fanfare for the Common Man. The rest of his life was marked by versatility—Copland composed for film, opera, and ballet—and the desire to speak simply.  Copland was the first to put a sense of American nationalism in his work, illustrated prominently through his composition of Rodeo (1942). Thomson continues chronologically by describing composer John Cage. Cage, a Californian-born composer, “denounced European beauty in a sea of electronic availabilities.”8 Using Cage’s HPSCHD as an example, Thomson describes Cage’s massive use of musical equipment: seven harpsichords playing simultaneously, magnified by a loudspeaker. Cage’s compositions brought American music to new heights: for the first time ever, the use of pure noise, with free structure and indeterminacy, was emphasized. Cage’s quirkiness as a composer was also illustrated through his 4’33’’, a work consisting of pure silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Thomson concludes the book by having some of his own operas described by Victor Fell Yellin. Yellin notes that “Thomson’s music provides a consistent, uniform, and therefore classic model of American musical speech unencumbered by stylistic mannerisms or personal eccentricities.”9 Thomson has solved the opera problem through effective rhythm of language: all his melodies derive from the words being sung, instead of vice-versa. Yellin praises Thomson for creating a new style of American Sound in the realm of opera that has stood the test of time, as illustrated in his Lord Byron. The authorship then switches to Gilbert Chase, who explores 20th century Latin American music in the last chapter of the book. Names such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carlos Chavez are accredited for pushing Latin American nationalism to the foreground of their compositions. Finally, in a so-called epilogue, Thomson gives thorough descriptions and personal comments on 106 prominent American composers.

Thomson analyzes several prominent composers and their distinctive styles, ultimately commenting on how these composers have collectively evolved American music. Thomson believes that “America’s problem has from the beginning lain largely in her composers’ lack of a plain and unfussy mastery…They are taught so elaborately and mature so late!”10 However, with the birth of ingenious composers such as Ives, Ruggles, Copland, and Cage, the original melting pot of American music has now created its own identity. The efforts of these men—especially in the field of opera—to purposefully stray from European Romanticism and create their own styles have successfully bore fruit. America now finds itself today with notable composers, unique styles of composition, and most importantly, its own distinct musical self.

An important modern composer himself, Thomson grew up in 20th century America and played a pivotal role in contributing to the evolution of American Sound. Thus, Thomson has already established his ethos: he is extremely well-equipped to probe into the works of his fellow composers and make knowledgeable comments about their distinctive styles. Thomson, in fact, personally knew several of the composers he wrote about. Aaron Copland, a long-time friend of Thomson, is praised above all other composers—the strong friendship these two shared no doubt contributed to Thomson’s panegyric. However, George Gershwin—a major fixture in American musical history—takes up only about two paragraphs in the entire book. Thomson had no relations with Gershwin; it seems as if Thomson’s relationship with a particular composer is directly related to how much is written about that composer. In addition, it is important to note that Thomson studied with “Nadia Boulanger, living in Paris from 1925 to 1940.”11 Spending time in Europe gave Thomson insight into the culture of European music at the time, as throughout the book, Thomson compares American styles of music with European styles of music. Thomson also highlights in his book fellow students who studied under Boulanger at the same time he did, such as Roger Sessions and Copland. Furthermore, unsurprisingly, Thomson himself is glorified in the book, through the lens of Yellin. Thomson is heralded as the “solver of the problems of American opera.”12 While it is true that Thomson was instrumental in the development of American opera, these compliments seem a little lofty. Nothing negative is said about Thomson in his biographical portion; however, it is obvious that the author of the book be shown in a positive light. Finally, because Thomson’s focus in composition was primarily centered on operas and film scores, he concentrates on analyzing these two specific aspects in other composers. In regards to historiography, the book was written in the 1970s, and thus employs New Left historiography. The struggle for civil and minority rights during this period parallels the struggle composers had in attaining a unique identity in American music. In addition, New Left radicalism is epitomized in the works of John Cage, who essentially broke all rules in his radical musical innovations using electronic equipment.

Thomson’s book was met with mostly positive reviews. A review from the Music Educators Journal by Roland Nadeau complements Thomson’s writing style as “urbane and witty, yet having a Frost-like, country honesty and directness.”13 Thomson’s analysis was regarded by Nadeau as invaluable for both the casual and serious student alike. Also, while Thomson’s views may not be flattering at all times, they are definitely filled with truth. Nadeau states that Thomson’s analytical prowess hits spot on when examining a composer’s musical style. A review from Notes by Hugh Aitken agrees that Thomson’s prose is “lucid, relaxed, and occasionally elegant,” with intelligent comments all around.14 However, Thomson is criticized for essentially including only composers he likes or feels obliged to include—leaving out many major figures in the process. In addition, Aitken points out that there seems to be an overemphasis on opera: Thomson’s operas are given a whole nineteen pages, while Latin American music in its entirety is given a measly eight. Nonetheless, despite these shortcomings, Thomson’s book is praised for its deep insight and comprehensive analysis of American music.

As a whole, Thomson’s book is extremely detailed and vastly well-researched. Combining objectivity with mild subjectivity, his biographies made for an extremely interesting and insightful read. Thomson is a master at dissecting each composer’s distinctive style. He explains each composer’s idiosyncrasies by delving into their specific compositions—there are even several musical excerpts printed out on the page to support his points. Not only analyzing the composition styles of a particular composer, Thomson also offers anecdotal biographies that probe into the life of composers, thus revealing the true faces of these personalities. Yet what is most commendable about Thomson is that he does not forget the big picture; as he moves chronologically from composer to composer, he keeps his ideas centered on how American music has progressed as a whole. Thomson’s prose is lively and moves along quickly, detailing the major stylistic features of each composer, but never lingering too long on one composer. Ultimately, Thomson is extremely effective in giving the reader a greater appreciation of American music and the toils several composers went through to create a purely American sound. Finally, the quick tidbits on 106 American composers give the reader a quick look into a composer’s life and styles: for example, under composer William Flanagan is not only a list of his compositions but also a complement for his “soaring lyric afflatus and extreme beauty in the melodic materials.”15  Aside from lacking in balance at times—certain composers are given more attention than others—there is nothing negative to be said about Thomson’s book.

The development of American music has played a pivotal role in reflecting uniquely American values. America, since the colonial era, has struggled to develop an independence and identity of its own. Similarly, in the realm of music, America has struggled to forge its own distinctive musical taste. America—the nation—originated as a melting pot of immigrant countries, but eventually, through the years, succeeded in creating its own all-American identity. Likewise, American music, which started off as a diverse mixture of European and African styles, has since developed its own all-American form. In addition, certain American musical traits reflect the societal trends in America at the time. For example, the American accent can be contributed to “the constant presence of dancing (both square dancing and round dancing), the metrical discipline of ragtime piano playing, and the tendencies in our folk singing and our hymn singing.”16  American music has also placed its fingerprint on the rest of the world. America has “first-class libraries, historians, pedagogues, performers, and dedicated listeners” as well as the “rare advantage of possessing excellent composers of all ages and all schools…No other country in the world, save France has that.”17 America now is one of the world’s leaders in music; composers flock to America, where they feel unrestricted by certain European musical molds. Also, in terms of musical education, America possesses three of the most prestigious musical conservatories in the world: the Julliard, the Curtis, and the Eastman. Furthermore, America, the country of innovation and technology, has led the world in producing music influenced by electronics.

Through his book, Thomson chronicles the development of classical music in America during the 20th century. From its European stylistic origins, music in America has transformed vastly since 1910. Thomson quells many of the worries Americans once had with regards to the creation of an American musical identity: “Let America exist. Indeed I am convinced that in music it already does exist. At least that.”18

1. Thomson, Virgil. American Music Since 1910. Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 1971. 16.
2. Thomson, Virgil. 6.
3. Thomson, Virgil. 16.
4. Thomson, Virgil. 24.
5. Thomson, Virgil. 35.
6. Thomson, Virgil. 58.
7. Thomson, Virgil. 52.
8. Thomson, Virgil. 75.
9. Thomson, Virgil. 91.
10. Thomson, Virgil. 63.
11. Thomson, Virgil. 107.
12. Thomson, Virgil. 97.
13. Nadeau, Roland. "American Music Since 1910." Music Educators Journal (1972): 61-62. Music Educators Journal. Web. 27 May 2012. <>.
14. Aitken, Hugh. "Twentieth-century Composers, [Volume I]." Notes 2nd ser. 28.2 (1971): 224-25. JSTOR. Web. 27 May 2012. <>.
15. Thomson, Virgil, 144.
16. Thomson, Virgil, 18.
17. Thomson, Virgil, 12.
18. Thomson, Virgil, 90.