KC Composer Celebrated in Upcoming PBS Documentary

“Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound” Gives the Overlooked Giant of American Music his Due

Walt Disney. Harry S Truman.

Most Kansas Citians recognize these native sons.

But Virgil Thomson? Blank stare.

Actually, Virgil Thomson is the most important KC native most people have never heard of.

That may soon change, thanks to a forthcoming PBS documentary that could return Thomson — one of the great American composers — to the fame and appreciation his admirers believe he has long deserved.

Born in KC in 1896, Thomson was a keyboard prodigy who as a teen played the organ at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral and went on to study music at Harvard.

He became an essential figure of the “Lost Generation” of expat Americans living in Paris in the 1920s. With poet Gertrude Stein, he created two great American operas — “Four Saints in Three Acts” and “The Mother of Us All.”

A genius at incorporating American folk tunes into classical works, Thomson drew from his own Midwestern roots to create scores for documentary films like 1936’s “The Plow that Broke the Plains” (about the Dust Bowl). His music for another doc — “Louisiana Story” — won him a Pulitzer.

From 1940 to 1954, Thomson was the music critic of the “New York Herald-Tribune”; in that position he railed against the conservative programming of American orchestras, decrying their reliance on a set European canon while ignoring vibrant contemporary works.

In his later years (he died in 1989 in his apartment in New York’s Chelsea Hotel), Thomson became a father figure to American composers like Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem. In 1983 he was honored by the Kennedy Center.

An eventful life. But a largely forgotten one.

“The rest of the country needs to know about him,” says John Paulson, one of the producers of “Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound.”

Indeed, everyone involved in the film — which has been in production for more than a decade — believes Thomson’s music is ripe for rediscovery. His work ranged from operas to symphonies, piano “portraits” to ballet scores.

“It’s time to get his music back out there again,” according to Craig Rutenberg, musical director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and one of the film’s onscreen commentators. “It’s time for people to be aware of what he meant to American music and American letters — and to the American spirit.”

Behind the documentary, which is expected to debut as part of PBS’ American Masters series late this year or early in 2021, are James Arnst and John Paulson — veterans of PBS documentaries who collaborated on 2007’s “Les Paul: Chasing Sound” — and Aimee Larrabee, the KC-based filmmaker whose documentaries include “Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie” and “The Next American Dream.”

The project had its inception in 2009, when Arnst visited Larrabee in Kansas City to discuss a project and discovered their mutual interest in Thomson.

The film’s long gestation is very much a product of its hand-to-mouth financing. Early on, Arnst received a grant from the Virgil Thomson Foundation — then on its last legs and preparing to shut down — and filming has been done in fits and spurts as new money becomes available.

But the seemingly unending production has had an upside. Over the years, the filmmakers have been the happy beneficiaries of unforeseen Thomson-related moments.

Like the discovery in the Harvard archives of one of Thomson’s student compositions, which is performed for the camera.

Or a concert at the Kauffman Center of Thomson pieces performed by area musicians.

Actor/playwright Wallace Shawn signed on to read excerpts from Thomson’s memoirs.

And then there’s the participation of country/pop star Lyle Lovett, who in a tiny church in Bazaar, Kansas, (he was the star of that summer’s nearby Symphony in the Flint Hills) recorded the gospel tune “How Firm A Foundation,” which was the basis for Thomson’s “Symphony on a Hymn Tune.”

(In the film, Lovett reveals that, like Thomson, he was born into a Southern Baptist family and grew up singing and listening to hymns.)

Even at this late stage, the filmmakers are making discoveries.

“Two weeks ago, Jim and I were at the Yale music archives. Thomson has the second largest collection there,” Paulson said. “We were poring through a thousand photos, music scores, every single critical review he wrote. It’s astounding the way he would take these major musical figures to task.”

While the documentary will hit all the important phases of the Thomson saga — chapters include “Growing up in Kansas City,” “Going to War and Conquering Paris,” “Creating the American Sound” and “A Critical Powerhouse” — it will also be heavy on performances.

Among the participants are the UMKC Conservatory Brass Quintet, area pianists Karen Engebretson and Karen Kushner, the Kansas City Symphony, mezzo-soprano Elaine Fox, the Kansas City People’s Liberation Big Band, the San Francisco Opera and the Santa Fe Opera.

“We wanted more than just archive recordings or tracks from CDs,” Paulson said. “We wanted live performances that draw you in. Especially by having Kansas City musicians come together to embrace Virgil’s history and music.”

The doc originally was planned as a one-hour film but has been expanded to 90 minutes.

“It’s hard to cover Virgil in just an hour,” says Larrabee. “He’s just too colorful.”

Indeed, one of the great challenges of the documentary is capturing Thomson’s personality. There are numerous TV interviews with the composer, but as producer Arnst notes, Thomson was usually on his best behavior in front of a camera.

“Sometimes you could detect a bit of the real Virgil, the wittiness and crankiness,” Arnst said. “As with all celebrities, he was telling the same old anecdotes.”

Many who knew Thomson compared him to elfin writer Truman Capote. Both were wits with a withering sense of humor.

“I never met Capote,” Arnst said, “but he strikes me as not nearly as content and happy a man as Virgil Thomson. Virgil was certainly a little cynical though . . . he didn’t give a damn about anybody else’s opinion. He was content with who he was and what he wanted to do, and if people didn’t like it, well, tough.”

Larrabee notes that throughout the film is scattered footage of a gathering of individuals who knew and loved Thomson.

“We had a cocktail party,” Larrabee said. “It was a chance for his friends to reminisce and tell stories. It’s a really great connection, because Virgil was such a character and they talk about him as an individual, as a friend.”

The late Jack Larson, librettist (he provided the lyrics for Thomson’s opera “Lord Byron”) and former actor (he played young Jimmy Olsen in the ’50s “The Adventures of Superman” TV series) recalls in the film that “Gore Vidal — who thought he knew everything — called Virgil ‘Smarty Pants.’”

Andrew Granade, professor of musicology at the UMKC Conservatory and a major contributor to the documentary, posited that today Thomson might be as popular as his musical rival Aaron Copland if only he hadn’t taken a job as a music critic.

“While he was writing for the ‘Herald-Tribune,’ few orchestras dared to play his music,” Granade said. “If they did, they could be accused of sucking up to him. And if they played his music badly, they’d be subject to his withering criticism.

“So during this time Copland just blows up, becomes a huge success. And by the time Thomson is composing again, musical trends have moved past him.”

Making “Virgil Thomson: Creating the American Sound” has been something of a seat-of-the-pants process.

“It’s been so informal we haven’t even decided what the credits will be,” Paulson said. “I might end up being listed as the director. Maybe not. I also shot footage and have been doing some of the editing.

“So it’s been an idiosyncratic process befitting the man we’re making the movie about.”

To see a trailer for the upcoming film, visit vimeo.com/102011755.

About The Author: Robert Butler

Robert Butler

For more than 40 years Robert W. Butler has covered movies for "The Kansas City Star." He also reviews current films at butlerscinemascene.com, at seniorcorrespondent.com and on KCUR-FM’s “Up to Date.”


  • Reply Rita Ashley

    It is unbelievably difficult to read the column on Virgil Thomson because of the lack of paragraphing. The lack of continuity without paragraphs makes it convenient to give up reading the column before the end.

    • Reply Amanda Rehagen

      Hi Rita! Could you provide more information on the browser, platform, or device you’re reading this on? We’re seeing paragraphs on our end and want to make sure there’s not an issue with the website affecting some users. If so, it might be something we can fix. Sorry for the issues, but thanks for letting us know!

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