Friday, February 20, 2015

Taste in Music

Virgil Thomson (1896–1989)
From Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954

Virgil Thomson in bed in his Chelsea Hotel apartment, by American photographer Mottke Weissman (b. 1923). Courtesy of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.
In 1939 Virgil Thomson published his first book, The State of Music, a polemic arguing that composers and other professionals must take control of the creation, performance, and distribution of music or it will become “a mere consumer commodity.” Previously, Thomson had been most famous for his collaboration with Gertrude Stein on the innovative opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, and his book proved to be nearly as provocative and original as the opera. Its stated goal was “to expose the philanthropic persons in control of our institutions for the amateurs they mostly are, to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit-makers that indeed they are, and to support with all the power of my praise every artist, composer, group, or impresario whose relation to music is straightforward, by which I mean based only on music and the sound it makes.” Although sales were initially poor, the volume created a sensation among critics, infuriated patrons of the arts, and established Thomson as a wit, a critic, and American music’s strongest advocate.

The following year Thomson met Geoffrey Parsons, the journalist in charge of cultural coverage at the New York Herald Tribune. Impressed by The State of Music, Parsons invited Thomson to become the paper’s chief music critic. A quarter century later Thomson speculated that his hiring “was determined less, I think, by my musical accomplishments, though these were known, than by my particular way of writing about music (at once sassy and classy).” Controversy appeared to be exactly what the Tribune expected, as Thomson later surmised:
For only such an assumption can explain why a musician so little schooled in daily journalism, a composer so committed to the modern, and a polemicist so contemptuous as myself of music’s power structure should have been offered a post of that prestige. Still more, why the paper kept me on for fourteen years. No other would have done so, I am sure. My editors, during the first two stormy seasons, I know were not wholly happy about their choice. But after that they relaxed and began to purr. My column carried professional prestige; it even, they believed, sold papers.
He joined the staff on October 10; his first review, a withering appraisal of that evening’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, ran the following morning and set the tone for his tenure. During the next few years, Thomson solicited pieces from such well-known composers as Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison. “I used no one not trained in music,” he wrote, “for my aim was to explain the artist, not to encourage misunderstanding of his work.” In a 1985 interview with Bruce Duffie, he further explained why only composers and performers published reviews under his editorship: “It’s a writing job, but the subject is music and you've got to know a good deal about the subject in order to be believable. In order to be a reviewer, you have to forget whether you liked it or not and tell your reader what it was like.”

The Musical Scene, a book collecting five years’ worth of Thomson’s articles and reviews, was published in March 1945. “As a literary craftsman, the author is probably unsurpassed in his field,” extolled The New York Times Book Review. “His unfavorable opinions are disarmingly sincere—and utterly venomous. His praises are sung with the joy of a child about to receive a second helping of ice cream.” For the collection, Thomson wrote the following prefatory essay, which also appeared in Town and Country magazine as “About Taste in Music There Should Be Dispute,” a riff off the essay’s last sentence (“De gustibus disputandum est”), itself a reversal of the Latin maxim: De gustibus non est disputandum (commonly rendered in English as “In matters of taste there can be no dispute.”)

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A taste for music, a taste for anything, is an ability to consume it with pleasure. Taste in music is preferential consumption, a greater liking for certain kinds of it than for others. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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