Music Master


Of all American choral composers today, Professor Randall Thompson '20 certainly ranks among the most popular. His Alleluia, written in 1940, and The Last Words of David (1949) have together sold about two million copies. Thompson's fame is not limited to America; his works are performed all over the world. He has just been asked by a group in Seoul if they may substitute the names of Korean holidays for the corresponding American dates in his Testament of Freedom when they perform it later this year. And Thompson is being asked for new works all the time. His future plans include two more choral compositions, one commissioned by the Worcester music festival, and the other, a setting of a Frost poem, will commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the town of Amherst.

Thompson's instrumental music, while less abundant than his choral work, has also been well received. His second symphony, written in 1932, has been performed over five hundred times, most recently by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. "The best thing about it all," says the composer, "is that my pieces are played over and over again. I'm fortunate enough not to have to worry about getting the usually elusive second hearing."

Thompson, noted for the flambuoyant color combinations of his tweedy clothing, talks slowly, with modesty and a quiet wit suggesting the restraint of a New England school teacher. A strong academic strain runs through Thompson's entire career. His father, a New Englander, taught at private schools, and Thompson himself was a professor at Wellesley, the University of California, the University of Virginia, and Princeton before being appointed to the faculty here. In 1935, after three years of research sponsored by the Association of American Colleges, he published an important study on musical education entitled College Music.

Thompson regards his teaching as a full-time operation and relegates composition to reading periods or else to his summer vacations in Gstaad, a quiet Swiss village. "I need absolute seclusion when I compose," says Thompson. "I have to work intensively before I can write music with ease, much as an athlete must get into shape before he can perform adequately. If I am interrupted at all, I have to start over again."

His most recent large-scale work, a Requiem for double chorus, which will be performed tonight in Sanders by the Glee Club and Choral Society, was composed in isolation. "I had a sabbatical in 1957-8 and my friends assumed that I had left town for the winter. Really, I had just stayed at home on Brattle Street working long hours in my studio there. When I appeared at school next fall, some colleagues asked me how I had enjoyed my trip. The solitude that I attained in that year was invaluable. After two months of undisturbed labor, I found that the eight-part harmonies flowed from my pen without any trouble at all."

Thompson expressed vehement disapproval of the imitation of contemporary masters. "Nothing strikes me as more futile than to become a little Stravinsky or a little Bartok. I have tried, just as Stravinsky and Bartok have done, to make a purely personal synthesis of the musical teachings of the past." Thompson is no conservative, however. He says quite firmly that, "Modern music and, specifically, atonal composition seems to me to be a logical development from the experimentation of Wagner and Strauss. After all there are many passages in Wagner where there is extended tonal ambiguity. From this, it is just a small step before one asks, as Schoenberg did, 'Why not do away with the concept of a key altogether?'"

One of Thompson's favorite points about modern music concerns contemporary sophistication. "Despite the heroic attempts for sublimity in the Berg Concerto, contemporary idioms in general lend themselves only with great difficulty to anything approaching the sublime. After all, though a tinkle-tinkle here and there in a Webern score may satiate one's thirst for the piquant and highly flavored, it does not quench the far more important thirst of the soul. Elevated feeling in the human spirit is generally ignored by modern composers, but it is an important response to the musical art. Any thinking person who made a list of the ten greatest compositions would have to include some exalted music--like the Sanctus of Bach's B Minor Mass, or Mozart's Magic Flute."

One of Thompson's patrons was Serge Koussevitsky who, for so many modern American composers, was a source of both income and inspiration. Koussevitsky, Thompson recalls, "had a genius for challenging you into writing a work. It was at his insistance that I composed, on extremely short notice, a chorus for all the students at Tanglewood to sing at the festival's dedication in 1940. He made it sound like the most important commission ever offered a composer."

After some reflection Mr. Thompson stated his basic philosophy of composition. "As a composer, I always feel an intene obligation to communicate directly to my audiences, of course without sacrificing my own desires to theirs. My greatest ambition is to try my very best to speak as meaningfully and as broadly to listeners as the past masters have. I am very honored to find out that my music can be appreciated even by people 'like you and I.'"