Virgil Thomson’s De Profundis

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Guillermo García Cuesta

A Religious Beginning
Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in a religious environment and was very familiar with the Latter-day Saint movement. He learned piano with the organist of the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, and went on to play organ there himself. All this would eventually influence his style, since hymns were in his DNA.

From Paris to New York
Thomson lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940 and studied for a while with Nadia Boulanger. He was acquainted with the group of influential composers there known as Les Six. When he returned to the U.S. he established himself in New York City and stayed there for the rest of his life. He lived with his partner, Maurice Grosser, in the Chelsea Hotel, a center of cultural activity.

An American Style
Thomson was key in the development of an American style of classical music. His use of hymns is a characteristic trait, as it is in the music of Charles Ives, but Thomson stayed as close to tonality as possible. He wrote music for movies and documentaries, perhaps most famously Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). His style utilized popular songs, hymns, and a new way of orchestrating. Thomson could also be a controversial author, writing about hot topics like the suffragette Susan B. Anthony in his opera The Mother of Us All, and including a tango ballet in Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered with an all-black cast.

De Profundis
Tonight, we will listen to his choral work De Profundis, the Psalm 130. I don’t know this as a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had chosen this Psalm after the famous letter “De Profundis,” which Oscar Wilde wrote while imprisoned for being homosexual. Thomson received a copy of that letter as a birthday gift when he was 17 years old and he kept it for the rest of his life.