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Remembering a “Choral Dean”

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Recognition is in order of the 40th anniversary of the death of Randall Thompson, “dean of American choral composers,” which will be on July 9th, and we are now two months past the 125th anniversary of his birth in 1899. Many years ago I studied tonal counterpoint with him at Harvard, and one year later took his seminar in choral composition. It took some years afterward, but I came to recognize how much technique I gained from that study and even acquired some modest mastery in important musicianship.

I was a raw college sophomore in 1959, and I disliked Thompson then for personal reasons that I now consider immature and trivial.  I felt that neither he nor his music had ever got very far past prep school, and indeed he took pride in having never studied in Paris or Fontainebleau but rather in Rome; he remained an Italophile until his death. I remember a friend telling me of being invited to tea at Thompson’s home, drinking two cups, and being offered and accepting a third cup of tea, whereupon the master upbraided him: “Don’t you know that it is very poor manners to accept a third cup of tea?”

More than that, I regarded much of Thompson’s music as simplemindedly epigonic — the neo-Handelian Ode on the Virginian Voyage, or the very popular Frostiana which sounded like second-rate Vaughan Williams. Thompson used to say that composers who wrote in others’ styles could never succeed — Edward Burlingame Hill, for instance, tried to imitate Debussy and could only achieve pale echoes. “And these composers today who imitate Webern!” he exploded one day. “Why, I was listening to Webern when I was kicking the slats out of my cradle!”

But I had sung the Alleluia first when I was 11 years old (the same age as the piece, already famous in a green cover), and sang it twice at Tanglewood (more on that, another time). One of those younger composers who imitated Webern back in 1958 was Frederic Rzewski, who several times in later years told of how much he had learned from Randall Thompson. And I got to know some of Thompson’s music that I now consider first-rate, such as the beautiful Horace Odes, and The Peaceable Kingdom for double chorus — masterly a capella writing with exquisite sound and textural clarity when well performed. His choral technique was unsurpassed, but he also wrote well for instruments; his Second Symphony (1931), partly jazz-influenced, is as good as any other American-composed symphony from the 1930s, but, like every other American symphony, it is rarely heard today.

In 2018 The Road Not Taken: A Documented Biography of Randall Thompson, by Carl B. and Elizabeth K. Schmidt, was published (Pendragon Press). This massive and ironically titled volume, 1057 pages, does not include a catalogue of Thompson’s works, already listed in a separate volume, but there is an enormously detailed documentation, correspondence, illustrations, a vast history of performances, and almost nothing about the music. The book offered me a sidelong glance at combinatorial mathematics. In 1961 Thompson composed his Nativity According to St. Luke as a “musical drama” for Christ Church (Episcopal) in Cambridge, where I had been a choirboy and bell ringer. He asked me for a precise specification of the 13 bells in the Christ Church tower, and at one point he wanted to know if I had any experience with change ringing; I hadn’t, and I’ve understood little about the patterns since. Morley Lush, an excellent organist who was an electrical engineer by profession, worked out some changes and conveyed them to Thompson, who indicated that these should be rung at the end of the score (Schmidt and Schmidt, p. 746). Not all, of course: for 13 bells, 6,227,020,800 changes would have taken some centuries. Thompson showed me the permuting ostinato bass (pizzicato contrabass) in the opening chorus that continues for 57 bars, in what he said was a “Treble Bob Minor” for six bells (a complete extent would be 720 changes).  Here is how it begins, accompanying a text of “The voice of one crying in the wilderness”:

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Like Mark DeVoto, I was a student of Randall Thompson at Harvard, tonal counterpoint and fugue. One of the orchestras I conduct in the Washington DC area, Symphony of the Potomac, performed the Second Symphony a few months back. I was delighted to welcome my Harvard colleagues, Carl B. and Elizabeth K. Schmidt to the performance. Carl it seems had only once before heard the Symphony in concert. We’d played it somewhat tentatively some thirty years back, but this was a splendid success for audience and orchestra, well justifying Leonard Bernstein’s observation that it was the missing Great American Symphony. Bernstein, famously, had learned the work on two week’s notice as a student of Koussevitzky at Tanglewood.

    Comment by Joel Lazar — June 17, 2024 at 12:03 pm

  2. Joseph Thomas Rawlins wrote a nice 13-page tribute to the composer in The Choral Journal (Vol. 45, No. 10 (MAY 2005), pp. 18-29).

    Thompson’s a cappella “Alleluia” is a staple of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus repertoire (we had its first page printed on T-shirts in the 1980s). It has also become a beloved “alumni” piece of the Yale Glee Club (under Fenno Heath) and numerous other choirs. It was sung by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus at my wedding 25 years ago, and remains a widespread favorite. It’s been featured in the Opening Exercises at Tanglewood almost every year since 1940

    And it will featured in the July 27-28 concerts this summer at Tanglewood:
    https://www.bso.org/events/open-rehearsal-copeland-thompson-stravinsky
    https://www.bso.org/events/copland-thompson-stravinsky

    His later short anthem “The Best of Rooms” showcases American melodic writing at its best: gorgeous stepwise music expanding into moving dissonances, subtle pauses that evoke Bruckner’s motets, a heartfelt American expansiveness showcasing very low female altos (look at “The Paper Reeds by the Brooks” from “The Peaceable Kingdom”), and soaring descants that recall the final movements of Mahler’s 2nd and 3rd symphonies.

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — June 28, 2024 at 10:01 pm

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