The Wit of Virgil Thomson


In response to:
                        <em><a href="http://ift.tt/2oqcepK">The Knight Errant of Music Criticism</a></em> from the April 20, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

In “The Knight Errant of Music Criticism” [NYR, April 20], Christopher Carroll writes that Virgil Thomson’s letters are “regrettably” absent from his collected Herald Tribune articles and other essays. I agree. Last fall, I spent afternoons poring over Thomson’s correspondence at the Yale Music Library. The thousands of letters he received from Tribune readers show that his articles are part of a dialogue. Sometimes Thomson’s interlocutors reveal an article’s clandestine meaning or a shrewd moment of camp humor (Thomson was quite the gay dandy).

Consider this gleeful slur from Thomson’s first-ever Tribune piece: “I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I’ve never met one among educated professional musicians.” Thomson’s editor chastised him for condescending. But a note from Paul Cadmus, a gay painter friend of Thomson’s, reveals the hidden joke:

Dear Virgil: How much I admire you, you horrid man. Think of all the poor people who have been able to bear their virginity all these years because they have had Sibelius. If you try to take Wagner away from them [Thomson also criticized Wagner in the piece], they’ll just have to stay home to masturbate. So think twice.

“Wagner” is the key word. Gay men had long been associated with the cult of Wagnerism. In the 1940s, gay men of a certain set met and mingled at the Metropolitan Opera and other musical establishments. Carroll mentions that Thomson had it in for Sibelius and Wagner, but Cadmus knew he was poking fun on the sly at their “virginal” fans—opera queen types out looking for sex. Without letters like Cadmus’s, contemporary readers—Carroll included—miss Thomson’s true, gay, wit.

Juliet Glazer
New York City

Christopher Carroll replies:

Virgil Thomson was indeed gay and a wit, but without Thomson’s response it is hard to know if Cadmus’s letter is, as Juliet Glazer suggests, evidence of an elaborate gay shadow dialogue at the center of Thomson’s first review for the Herald Tribune. It may simply be a record of what Cadmus thought when he read that review. But whatever the case, Thomson’s antipathy for Sibelius and lack of enthusiasm for Wagner (about whose music he once wrote that the “question, as I see it, is not whether he was a ‘great’ musical author. It is rather how much sense any given page of his music makes”) are well documented. Here, in response to the very same review Cadmus had written about, is an excerpt from Thomson’s letter to another reader:

I am sorry that my approach to musical criticism and to the Sibelius symphony in particular is distasteful to you. I can only say in print what I think about music; that is what I am hired for. It may be as you suggest that I should eventually be fired for doing just that but I cannot pretend to be uplifted by a work which I find depressing.

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