Virgil Thomson, Taste in music (Review)

Virgil Thomson portrait, 1947

Virgil Thomson, 1947 (Public Domain, from the Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

There are several reasons why now seemed an opportune time to write my first Library of America (LOA) post for 2015. The first reason is obvious. It’s June and I haven’t featured one yet. The second is because my last post was on music, so writing about an article by American composer Virgil Thomson seemed apposite. The third reason relates to an interesting comment Thomson makes about reviewing, recalling my recent post on the AustLit anthology of criticism.

And then there’s reason why this article, published by LOA back in February, initially attracted my attention. It’s because of Virgil Thomson himself. I first heard of him back in the 1970s as the composer of two beautiful American government sponsored documentaries, The plow that broke the plains (1936) and The river (1938), made by filmmaker Pare Lorents. I won’t reminisce about this now, but I enjoy noting these connections we make over our lives.

In my post on the Austlist anthology of criticism, I quoted the editors as defining criticism as  “interpretation”, something they differentiated from “reviews” which they saw as focusing on “evaluation”. In LOA’s introductory notes to Thomson’s piece, they quote Thomson’s explanation as to why, as music critic and editor for the New York Herald Tribune, he only used composers and performers as reviewers. He said:

It’s a writing job, but the subject is music and you’ve got to know a good deal about the subject in order to be believable. In order to be a reviewer, you have to forget whether you liked it or not and tell your reader what it was like.

Hmmm … a rose by any other name, eh? What Thomson calls “reviewing” is what the anthology editors call “criticism”. Whatever name we give it, I realise that I tend to prefer reviews/criticism that focus on analysing what the work is like, what makes it tick, more than whether the reviewer liked it. “Liking” is such a subjective thing and can depend so much on one’s experiences, preferences, personality even, whereas describing “what it was like” involves knowledge of the art form, the ability to “see” it in context, to understand how it does what it does, and to describe, perhaps, what it “means”. This is not to say that “liking” isn’t important, but that it is not necessarily the most important aspect – for me anyhow.

So, then, Thomson’s “Taste in Music”. He starts by differentiating taste “for” music, which he sees as the ability to enjoy music, pretty much indiscriminately, and taste “in” music, which involves liking certain kinds of music over others. He then discusses admiration versus liking, suggesting that “there are often striking contradictions between what musical people admire and what they like”. Admiration is about “reason” while “liking is an inspiration”. You can’t alter “liking”, he says, “by any act of will”. But “it will frequently alter itself … without warning”. I think we have all experienced that! Loving something, and then suddenly tiring of it, growing out of it perhaps.

Thomson’s main argument is that “development of taste” is not the main objective of music education, that the important thing is “understanding, that whole paraphernalia of analysis and synthesis whereby a piece is broken down into its component details, mastered, restored to integrity, and possessed”. This is true of literature too. How often have you heard people say that studying literature put them off reading, or off the classics. And yet, pulling apart books is the only way you learn to understand them, what makes them tick. Thomson goes on:

Persons unprepared by training to roam the world of music in freedom but who enjoy music and wish to increase that enjoyment are constantly searching for a key, a passport that will hasten their progress. There is none, really, except study.

Oh dear, he’s right, I know he is. And this is why I constantly say that my reports of Griffyn Ensemble concerts do not constitute reviews. They are reports of what I enjoyed, and what I made of the performance. I do not have the skills or training to review music.

Thomson also discusses the familiar versus unfamiliar in music. He writes that “the too old, the too new, the in-any-way strange, we resist simply because we do not know how to take them on”. We enjoy the familiar, he says, and this leads toward “a timid conservatism with regard to unfamiliar music”. He writes that:

The lay public will try anything, but it will be disappointed, on first hearing, in anything it has no method for remembering. We like the idea of being musically progressive, because progress is one of our national ideals; but we do not always know how to conduct a progress.

This is probably true of the new in all of the arts, don’t you think? “To hear music correctly”, he wrote, to “know one’s mind”, we need to be able to “hear patterns in sound”. This is what I feel about all music, but particularly new, unfamiliar work. I might sense patterns but on one hearing, and with almost no musical training, I don’t feel capable of “reviewing” it, of understanding let alone explaining what makes it tick, the same way I can, for example, with a novel. I am experienced at looking for patterns in literature, but not so for music. Thomson suggests that the untrained will “rarely know the difference between their tastes and their opinions”. Hmm … probably true.

His next point is that while professional musicians express “responsible opinions” based on knowledge, it is “lay opinion” which creates the “modes or fashions in consumption that make up the history of taste”.  Interesting. He admits that knowledgeable persons play some role in developing these “fashions” but that they can’t force the public to like what it doesn’t want. He argues that creators cannot behave freely with trendy music. You can’t tinker with what people like. For this reason, he says, unsuccessful or unfashionable music “is sometimes the best music, the freest, the most original”.

What I most enjoyed about Thomson’s essay, though, is that he doesn’t lay down the law. He knows music, like all arts I’d say, is a slippery beast. There “is no rule” that can’t be broken. He writes that:

Those who think themselves most individual in their likings are most easily trapped by the appeal of chic, since chic is no more than the ability to accept trends in fashion with grace, to vary them ever so slightly, to follow a movement under the sincere illusion that one is being oneself.

He then has a dig at intellectuals. “You can always sell to the world of learning” he says, “acquaintance with that which it does not know”!

In other words, the only real answer to understanding and appreciating music, is “labor, much study, and inveterate wariness [because] the pleasures of taste, at best, are transitory”. “Nobody”, he says, “professional or layman, can be sure that what he finds beautiful this year may not be just another piece of music to him next.”

So, having logically argued the meaning of responsible reviewing and the importance of understanding music, Thomson concludes that in the end “the pleasures of taste … are transitory”. The best we can do, he says, is consult our appetite about what we consume and after consuming it “argue about the thing interminably” with all our friends. On that basis, I think, the important thing is to enjoy what we read, hear or see, and when we write about it to be clear about the basis on which we are writing. Our readers can then assess our opinion on the basis of what they understand to be our background, knowledge and prejudices. What do you think?

Virgil Thomson
“Taste in music”
First published: In The musical scene, 1945.
Available: Online at the Library of America

4 thoughts on “Virgil Thomson, Taste in music (Review)

  1. Thank you for for opening up this discussion of music appreciation – a timely one in my case, since I’ve spent a fair amount of the day listening to the classic 100 countdown on ABC fm.

    I was particularly struck by Avo Part’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ which came in at number 5. Though I’d heard the piece before, I’d never listened to it so carefully, and I was struck by the layers behind apparently simple combinations of notes. I was also struck by a comment one of the presenters made about the music leaving the listener ‘nowhere to hide’ and being compelled to pay attention to every note. To connect this example with Virgil Thompson, and your, remarks about music education, I was forced to reflect today how often I listen to music with ‘half an ear’. I’m in the car, or doing housework, activities you can’t combine with reading a novel, short story or poem! Today I really listened and I think my education took a big step forward.

    • Oh thanks Dorothy. I am in Melbourne this weekend and was trying to explain Thomson to my son, and I don’t think I did it very well. I started to feel I shouldn’t have written this post, so I’m thrilled it gave you thought. I haven’t listened to the Classic 100 because we’ve been visiting offspring, though I’d heard it promoted at the beginning of the weekend. I now feel embassy’s see about Spiegel im spiegel because it’s one of my chosen pieces of music for my morning yoga. I’m probably not giving it the attention it needs. I will play it without yoga tomorrow and listen to the notes. There’s something mesmerising about it isn’t there?

      Besides that, I know what you mean about listening to music. We can tend to “consume” it with little thought, unlike other art forms, like literature, can’t we? We can use it as a distraction when doing housework as you say, or driving. Unless we go to a concert or sit down and just listen. You’ve added another whole layer to think about!

  2. What a interesting essay and an interesting person. So much of what you quote of Thomson can apply to books too especially that bit about liking!

    • Thanks Stefanie … Yes, that’s exactly what I thought. The basics of arts criticism are pretty similar across the arts aren’t they. I reckon criticism of art must be the “easiest” in the sense that it’s not hard to achieve multiple or intense viewing versus multiple readings of a book or multiple viewings of a film or, particularly hard, and expensive, multiple experience of live performances.

      Please no one yell at me about the “easy” bit … All criticism I know demands skill and knowledge as well as experience of the work.

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