A generally informative biography of the influential American
composer that suffers, paradoxically, from its author's intimacy
with his subject. Tommasini was teaching at Boston's Emerson
College when he met Thomson in 1979; he wrote his dissertation on
the composer's musical portraits and remained a friend until
Thomson's death in 1989, aged 92. The chapters covering this period
believably depict a cantankerous, capricious, often cruel old man,
but Tommasini overemphasizes these traits in the composer's first
80 years. Bossy and opinionated Thomson certainly was from his
earliest days as a musical and intellectual prodigy in Kansas City,
Mo. He was also a generous friend and an unswerving champion of
modern American classical music, especially during his tenure as
the powerful music critic of the New York Herald Tribune (1940-54).
With the arguable exception of the two operas he set to texts by
Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of
Us All (1947), Thomson's own work was underestimated, even though
his tonality, stress on simplicity, and skillful use of traditional
American tunes strongly influenced Aaron Copland, Leonard
Bernstein, and many others. Tommasini adequately describes
individual pieces, including scores for such groundbreaking
documentaries as The Plow That Broke the Plains and Louisiana Story
(for which Thomson won a Pulitzer) but doesn't give a satisfactory
overall assessment of the composer's place in the American musical
pantheon. His judgments on Thomson's private life also lack
perspective: He implicitly criticizes the composer for remaining a
closeted homosexual, even as the narrative - which mentions
acquaintances receiving lengthy jail sentences and one scary
near-miss for Thomson - illustrates why gay men of that generation
often preferred to be discreet. Despite lots of gossip, the essence
of Thomson's most important relationships, in particular a
long-term one with the painter Maurice Grosser, remains elusive.
Tommasini had access to the relevant documents and made reasonable
use of them, but his book lacks the qualities Thomson's own
writings always had: wit, verve, and a sense of history. (Kirkus
In this vivid portrayal of a giant in American twentieth-century
music and criticism, Anthony Tommasini recounts Thomson's
experiences as a composer, critic, and gay man. Tommasini
chronicles Thomson's upbringing in turn-of-the-century Kansas City,
along with his struggle to accept his sexuality -- "I didn't want
to be queer" -- as he searched for a place in the wider world
through army service in World War I as well as at Harvard and in
1920s Paris. There Thomson studied with Nadia Boulanger and formed
an artistic alliance with Gertrude Stein that would result in the
pioneering opera Four Saints in Three Acts.
Thomson's fourteen-year tenure as chief music critic for the New
York Herald Tribune showcased his talent for brilliant, biting
commentary and established him as an influential writer on music
and an arbiter of musical taste. The result of this involving
narrative is a classic American biography of a classic American
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