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Life Span: Born
25th November 1896, Missouri; Died 30th September
1989, New York
Star Sign: Sagittarius
Famous As: US
composer and music critic
His father was a farmer and then became a postal
worker. Virgil Thomson began to study music at the
age of 5, and by the age of 12 he was playing the
organ at his family's church, Calvary Baptist Church,
and at other churches in Kansas City.
He attended Central High School from 1908 to 1913,
and a local junior college from 1915 to 1917.
In 1919 he went to Harvard. University.
In January 1917 Thomson e enlisted in a mounted
artillary outfit with a National Guard regiment,
and in August he joined its Medical Detachment.
His regiment acquired the name 129th. Field Artillary
but it remained in the USA because it was short
of men, officers, and equipment. Thomson then
moved to aviation and in January 1918 he joined
the Pilots' Ground School at the University of
Texas. He then went to Columbia University to
learn radio telephony. He was commissioned as
a lieutenant in the US Air Force but the War ended
just before he was due to go abroad.
Thomson had three main influences. He studied
orchestration and modern French music with the
French-trained composer Edward Bulingame Hill.
For three years Thomson was assistant and accompanist
for Archibald T. Davision who was also French-trained
and was the conductor of the Harvard Glee Club.
S. Foster Damon was a Blake scholar, a poet, and
a composer, and he introduced Thomson to the works
of Erik Satie and also to Tender Buttons, the
collection of early writing by Gertrude Stein.
Thomson began to compose at Harvard in 1920.
He returned to Harvard and was appointed as organist-choirmaster
at King's Chapel, Boston. He gave the first US
performance of Erik Satie's Socrate for the Harvard
Musical Club. He graduated in 1923. He was awarded
a grant from the Juilliard School, New York, and
studied conducting with Chalmers Clifton and counterpoint
with Rosario Scalero.
He returned to Paris in 1925 and lived there until
1940, apart from visits to the USA. During this
time he composed Preciosilla and Capital Capitals
which were settings of Gertrude Stein's texts.
Gertrude Stein completed the libretto for Four
Saints in Three Acts in June 1927. Virgil Thomson
completed the piano score in 1928 and orchestrated
it in 1933. A second text by Gertrude Stein, inspired
by the life of the lesbian suffragist Susan B.
Anthony, gave rise to the opera The Mother of
us all, (1947). In the late 1930s he began writing
In October 1940 he was appointed music critic
of the New York Herald Tribune. He was in the
post for 14 years and established himself as one
of the major music critics of the time. Writing
this time was anthologised in The Musical
Scene, (1945), The Art of Judging Music, (1948),
and Music, Right and Left, (1951). In 1947 he
was awarded the Legion d'honneur.
During the 1950s and 1960s he went on lecture
tours and participated in conferences. He also
wrote articles and conducted in the USA and Europe.
As composer and critic he influenced other US
gay composers including Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein,
Henry Cowell, Paul Bowles, Lou Harrison, John
Cage, and Ned Rorem. He appeared as himself in
the film Música de América y España,
(1965). In 1983 he was awarded the Kennedy Center
Honor for a lifetime achievement.
Although he had numerous gay relationships
he was very keen to keep this aspect of his life
private. He had a long relationship with the painter
Maurice Grosser, and also had relationships with
Leland Poole, Briggs Buchanan, and the painter
Roger Baker. In the Autumn of 1926 he met Gertrude
Stein and they began to plan an opera together.
Gertrude Stein's text lacked structure and plot
so Virgil Thomson's friend Maurice Grosser added
material. Apart from Virgil Thomson and Maurice
Grosser other gay connections with this production
were the choreographer Frederick Ashton, and sponsors
including the impresario Lincoln Kirstein and
the architect Philip Johnson. The work was first
performed, with Gertrude Stein present, in 1934
with an all-black cast, in Hartford, New York,
and Chicago. It became Virgil Thomson's most famous
work. During 1921 in Paris he met Jean Cocteau
and the avantgarde composers known as Les Six,
and he was also introduced to Erik Satie. Virgil
Thomson's first published critical writing appeared
in the Boston Transcript as music notices.
A large body of music.
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