The State of Music and Other Writings by Virgil Thomson, edited by Tim Page, Library of America, 1,170 pages, $50. Hector Berlioz, wrote Virgil Thomson, “could really write” and “was also a real composer ... Nothing phony there, no self-deception, no bluffing, no self-pity, just ... a French musician who was successful in England, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Russia – everywhere but in France.” Claude Debusssy, the 20th century’s “most original composer” was, wrote Thomson “ill-born, ill-bred, and virtually uneducated save in music. Though an autodidact in the non-musical branches, he was alive to painting and to poetry, including the most advanced.”
Thomson was unique in America. Though one can vaguely recognize that the French Berlioz and Debussy are forebears, Thomson was the only American composer to also be a cornerstone of critical journalism in his time. Which is why this is, unquestionably, the great classical music book of the year. In an entirely different area, Ben Ratliff’s “Every Song Ever” was a unique traversal of music in the era of digital omni-music, but we can read here that Thomson was the magnificent exemplar and end of a singular place where American classical music and American journalism met.
This mammoth and utterly invaluable volume of Thomson’s writings is editor Tim Page’s second in his collected Thomson. It’s the first-ever collection of “The State of Music,” “American Music Since 1910,” his autobiography and “Music With Words” together along with other writings addressing everything from “The State of Opera” and “The State of Music Criticism” to books he magesterially reviewed for the New York Review of Books.
Tastes are different in our era to be sure. Certain problems are endemic to reading Thomson. He was always a bit reckless, sometimes contemptuously careless and snobbishly tone-deaf (oddly). His lusty self-promotion wasn’t frowned on for the simple reason that, in his prime, he was, almost literally, a law unto himself. But there is more wit, substance and incomparable wisdom about his era’s musical world here than you will find in many library rooms groaning with books on music. A treasure. – Jeff Simon