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Randall Thompson


By Mary CHANNING Stokes

There are men who would be identified even on a roller coaster as Harvard professors. Randall Thompson '20, professor of Music, is not one of these. He is often to be seen on the roller coaster near Saunders-town, R. I., with a swarm of kids, and one would never suspect he was a ranking expert on the fugue.

In Saunderstown, Thompson is famous for everything. Everything, that is, except being a Harvard professor and widely known composer. He has, for example, a reputation for being an outstanding charade player, a distinction he gained by such escapades as twining himself in ivy leaves to play Bacchus and giving a performance of the "Dying Swan."

He also has a considerable flair for French cooking, which he bolstered this winter by a six-week course in cuisine given by Dione Lucas, of "Cordon Bleu" fame. In the field of dogs, he is known for his extraordinary poodle-clipping talent.

The multitude of guests that visits the Thompsons--the professor, his wife, and four children--each summer is only a small proportion of their many friends. Thompson's amazing faculty for making friends has been aided by his diversified background. He has taught at Wellesley, the University of California, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the University of Virginia, Princeton, and Harvard, as well as working in New York and studying abroad.

Thompson began his musical career under the auspices of the family cook, who taught him to read and play hymns on an old melodion. His education continued under the mathematics teacher at Lawrenceville School, where Thompson's father taught English. The teacher let Thompson turn the pages for him when he played the organ for morning chapel and also gave him lessons. Upon his sudden death Thompson had to take over the job of playing the organ for chapel. "I was scared every morning, but the repetition eventually cured me and I haven't had stage fright since," he recalls, "not even at my first class at Wellesley."

By the time he graduated from Lawrenceville, he had written enough to know he wanted to compose. His mother's reaction to this decision was, "All right, but what will you do for a living?" She did not protest, however, when he spent all his time at Harvard composing, an occupation which brought him two undergraduate awards and a performance of one of his prize-winning works by Archibald Davison, the present James Edward Ditson Professor of Music.

After graduating in 1920 Thompson wanted to take lessons from Ernest Bloch, but the great composer did not give him a very warm reception. "Have you analyzed the quartets of Beethoven? Have you studied the Masses of Palestrina? Have you analyzed the motets of Lassua?" The answer to each of these questions was no. "And you are a graduate of Harvard!" said the horrified Bloch. Bloch agreed to teach him, however.

Sixteen years later the picture was reversed and Thompson was teaching Leonard Bernstein, Lucas Foss and others at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He went to run the Curtis after teaching at Wellesley and California, several trips to Europe on Guggenheim fellowships, and a two year tour of thirty American colleges gathering music for a book, "College Music."

When Thompson looks back over his many teaching jobs, he says, "I'm glad I've done more than compose. The other jobs make composing more interesting." His aim is to write music for the present which is typical of America. He is proud that high school choirs all over the country frequently perform his "Peaceable Kingdom," "Tarantella," and "Testament of Freedom." He particularly enjoys the mail from people who like his music, saying he is more pleased by a letter of appreciation from an out-of-the-way place than by a glowing newspaper write-up.

He is happy that his teaching has led him back to Harvard and says that 144 Bratle Street will be his nineteenth and last house. He has decided to stay in what he considers the best music department in the country because he has more good students here than he has ever had before.

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