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A Warm Homage on Randall Thompson’s 125th Birthday

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I first heard the name Randall Thompson when I was 15 or 16 and a member of the A Capella Choir at Classical High School, Providence, Rhode Island. Classical music had only recently become a passion for me, and I was soaking it all up as fast as I possibly could. The choir director, Dr. Louis Picchieri, announced with great solemnity that we were about to undertake learning a difficult and monumental piece, by an important, contemporary American composer. We were given to understand that it had been composed for adult singers, and that allowing a group of adolescent voices like ours to take it on was a challenge, and something of a risk.

That piece, of course, was the Alleluia, and I and the other teenage choristers were suitably impressed by the majesty and sweep of Thompson’s writing. The slow buildup to a climax, and then the release to a pianissimo close, were, to use the argot of a later generation, awesome. We grew to love that music, as did countless thousands of other choristers and listeners, before and since. Little did I know that, only a few years later, I would come to know Thompson personally, that the author of those majestic sounds would become my teacher and mentor, guiding and encouraging me through a difficult time at Harvard University, and that we would be on a first-name basis.

Joel Cohen ca. 1980

College years, and a music major, went by without my thinking much about Thompson or his music. I did, however, become interested in composing for voice, and for choirs. My undergraduate thesis at Brown University was a“Sacred Service,” a setting for chorus and organ of Hebrew prayers for the Friday night Sabbath Service. During my senior year, as I poured over the course offerings at Harvard in the music department, I noticed a course in choral composition taught by…Randall Thompson. Signing up for that one was a no brainer, even though I knew little of Thompson’s music besides that Alleluia.

Arriving in Cambridge in the autumn of 1963 and discovering an environment so very different from the one I had known during my undergraduate years, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the choral composition course, especially because some of the other offerings in the graduate program were not very much to my taste or liking.

And I immediately discovered Thompson the man and the teacher. The ambiance in the graduate program was competitive and in at least some of the courses the clear intent was to provide a trial by fire to a large entering class, whereby the less gifted and/or motivated were to be weeded out. From a statistical or demographic point of view, I suppose, that strategy made perfect sense: how many college teaching jobs in music/musicology were there, anyway? Why encourage the second-tier students down a probably disappointing career path?

The ambiance did not suit me very well, however. I needed guidance, encouragement, and mentoring, not a competition. And I thus found Randall Thompson and his pedagogical methods to be a godsend.

Thompson had a way of bringing out the best in people. When he found a student effort worthy of praise, he would say so immediately, and by doing so encourage the pupil to an even greater effort the next time. He liked to see us assured of mastery of simple, basic tools before moving on to more complex tasks. Many of his assignments involved voluntarily limiting the compositional palette so that interesting work could be turned out with just a few elements. One exercise, that I particularly enjoyed, involved writing several pages of choral music using only simple triads, and in root position….the idea was to produce an interesting, involving piece of music with the simplest of means.

A conservative man, he was not particularly sympathetic to atonalism or to Schoenbergian compositional aesthetics. His own music, carefully crafted, hewed closely to the principals of tonal harmony, and rarely if ever reached for the grand gesture or the shock-and-awe approach. He was, thanks to his large body of finely written choral works, beloved of American choral societies and school choirs, but at the point in time when I made his acquaintance, his name barely registered on the radar of “contemporary” music. The surname Thompson was more likely in that milieu to refer to Virgil, another conservative, but one who had resolutely remained in the swim of the new-music scene over the years. Randall (he offered the first-name basis after several months of my studying with him) was quite aware of his marginal-to-some place on the American composition scene, and he seemed to accept his position with serenity, referring in conversation with me more than once to the Robert Frost poem (and his setting of it), “The Road Not Taken,” as a metaphor for his own career. (The reader may recall that there is a perky instrumental interlude in the Thompson setting, quite near the contemplative end, set to the words “And that has made all the difference.” Referring to the instrumental passage, Randall said once to me, “That’s the other road.”)

The other “name” composer on the Harvard faculty at that time (Walter Piston was still alive, but was an emeritus) was Leon Kirchner, a post-Schoenbergian with a strong reputation, and a corpus of thorny, difficult compositions in different genres. One of my classmates in Thompson’s choral composition seminar undertook at the same time a composition course with Kirchner. He brought into Thompson’s class a sketch of something he had begun with Kirchner and played it for us and for Thompson. The reception was about as glacial as possible, given Thompson’s good breeding and careful, Anglo-Saxon manner of being. “Well, I am not sure I would encourage you to write like that,” was his comment, as I recall. The fellow, of course, was in an impossible position. I remain unsure of his fate, or whether he completed Thompson’s course. In any case, he told us he had been getting grief from Kirchner as well, from another aesthetic perspective.

I was enrolled at Harvard as a composition student, even though I was taking musicology classes as well. Kirchner did not approve of my music, and we had several confrontational discussions about what a serious approach to musical composition was, or ought to be. Even though, much later, he and I evolved a kind of friendship, it appeared to me in the autumn/winter of 1963 that he didn’t think I belonged at Harvard as a composition student. I think that were it not for my relation to Randall Thompson I would not have made it through that program.

But Randall saved my butt, and my self-esteem in the bargain. Soon after my enrolling in his choral composition class, I managed to play him a tape recording of my Brown University undergraduate thesis. “My goodness,” he exclaimed, “not many people can write for chorus the way you do.” His support meant the world to me, and kept me motivated to stay at Harvard and get my M.A. I understood that the in-crowd composition “scene” of the early 1960’s was not going to be hospitable to me and my melodic, tonal music, but Thompson was steadfast in support of what I wanted to do. He felt, I think, that I was someone at once gifted and also interested in carrying on the aesthetic principals that had been his. A subsidiary but meaningful element to him: as a student of Ernest Bloch, he also liked the fact that I was Jewish; it clearly gave him a sense of continuity across the generations.

During my second year at Harvard I took Thompson’s fugue class and wrote a second Sacred Service as my master’s thesis. By this point Kirchner had relented and allowed my project to go through. “Well, Thompson supports you. And he is very professional,” he said to me. I was not going to be shown the door.

RT composing in Gstaad, Switzerland, inscribed to Joel Cohen

I did not get as much I should have from that second year, which was dominated by extracurricular matters of a pressingly personal nature. I missed a couple of the weekly fugue classes but tried nonetheless to get the most out of Thompson’s instruction. He wanted us to use the process of fugue writing as a learning tool for thinking about musical composition in general. He spoke against a formulaic approach and wanted us to think each problem/situation encountered in the course of writing a fugue as a challenge to think afresh. How I wish I could find the exercises I wrote for that class; well, maybe they will turn up one of these days.

My second Sacred Service had strong parts and weak parts, as I look back on it. Thompson believed in it, perhaps more than I did myself. He was a highly, and well-networked gentleman. He secured a publishing contract for the work from E.C. Schirmer, his own publishing house (they never issued it, however), and he even obtained a performance of it, at a synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, whose choir was directed by Bill Ballard, an old student/colleague of his. By this time, I was in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger, someone of whom Randall did not entirely approve. For the performance, Thompson arranged for my plane fare from Paris to Evanston via Boston. I was told that the plane fare had been paid for by a wealthy older couple in Cambridge, and I even paid a courtesy visit to them to thank them for their help. But I suspect that Randall had fronted the money for the plane fare himself.

During my second year, Harvard gave Thompson, on the verge of retirement, a retrospective concert of his choral music. Immaculate in white tie and tails, he conducted the program of his own works with grace and utter precision to a large audience at Sanders Theater. It was a moving valedictory. However, the new critic at the Boston Globe, Michael Steinberg, wrote a largely dismissive and inhumane review, summing up Thompson’s lifetime effort as “the incarnation of Wasp music.” I wrote an angry letter to Steinberg in my teacher’s defense, accusing the writer, himself a refugee from anti-Semitic Germany, of racist language (Steinberg later became a supporter of my work with the Boston Camerata, so to his credit he at least did not hold a grudge).

I never talked to Thompson in a direct way about that review, or my response to it, but I assume he was aware, at the very least, of what had appeared in print. I believe we skirted around the subject at one point. Whatever his deep feelings might have been, he remained, as ever, poised and calm in his interactions.

And then, a Master of Arts from Harvard in musical composition successfully acquired, I went off to Paris for two years of work with Mademoiselle.

Post-Paris studies, back in Boston earning my living as a lutenist and early music coach, I only saw Thompson a few times. The last meeting, in his Cambridge home, was sun-filled. I brought him my recently orchestrated score of a chamber opera (to a text by Yeats); he looked it over and made some very telling and constructive suggestions about the orchestration and gave me a bottle of wine at the end. It was so fine having a friendly, supportive elder soul at my elbow.

I loved Randall Thompson. And as I summarize now, some (but yet not all) of the favors he did me, I am newly awed by the extent of his devotion and friendship. Of course, he, too had a need, and I helped him fill it. But as I look back, I realize that his support of me was something unique in my professional life, never experienced previously or since (my life-partnership/marriage excepted). What an extraordinary man. I bless his memory.

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He was recently a guest artist of the Alliance Française of Minneapolis, Minnesota, commemorating the Fête de la Musique, which he first conceived in 1976.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for such a detailed and moving tribute. The way you write about Thompson evokes for me the same emotions as I feel when singing his choral music: community, connection, and the sound of “What Love Tells Me” (to quote Mahler).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 30, 2024 at 2:59 pm

  2. Your tribute to Randall Thompson as teacher, mentor and friend is very touching in its relatable humanity. Many of us may have had similar experiences even if not in exact detail, teachers who become beloved to us and to whom we’ll always be grateful for what they shared. Also, the role that some music “critics” have played in the lives of so many composers is often looked back upon in retrospect as the critics having been caught up in the compositional approach viewed favorably by their contemporaries and looking for favor from those who share their point of view. Reading contemporary reviews of many composers from the past whose work was vilified in their own time one wonders how they withstood the harsh criticism. Randall Thompson must have been a man with enough perspective on life and the world to withstand that cruel review.

    Comment by Susan Sigal — June 30, 2024 at 6:11 pm

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