Boston Marathon Explosion: Read Virgil Thomson's 'Harvard, Jumping-Off Place for Europe'
For a while, anyways, the late Virgil Thomson was American classical music. Equally at home on staff paper and the daily news, be he composer or critic, Thomson always wrote with tremendous courage and biting wit.
After World War I, thanks to a generous loan from Dr. Fred M. Smith (then president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), Thomson enrolled at Harvard University. In the following excerpt from his long-out-of-print essay "Harvard, Jumping-Off Place for Europe," the perpetually prescient Thomson describes what he saw--what he felt--in and around the great city of Boston as an undergrad:
For all the cultural advantages of Boston, plus its lovely sky line made soft and feathery by chimney pots and its sometimes tolerable food, I never really felt at home there or quite at ease. New York, a boastful city, let one swell up. But in Boston, even still no one expands; the inhabitants seem rather to aim at compressing one another. From my arrival there, I had felt that over all New England, save Maine perhaps, there hung a crowd of enemies to man, of circumvolant Calvinistic warlocks no part of my theology. And I grew to understand the need for placating these every century or so with human flesh and blood. In seventeenth-century Salem those killed off were kin and neighbors; during the Civil War, slaveowners resisting reform; right then, though I did not know it, there was coming a need again (first felt in Boston, where in 1919 the police force went on strike) to stop something in its tracks (this time, revolution) through the sacrifice of two Italian immigrants. The sky, so blue on coldest days, the bright white snow, the grass, the lakes, the sea--nature in general seemed not the enemy, though rarely did it bless. But in the wary eyes of everyone and in the necks that never turned around, one could feel the fear that makes them all take exercise, put money by, study forever, and worship ancestors. For me the exercise and study were just fine, though economy as such I scarcely thought a virtue. As for ancestors, I had plenty myself; and I learned early to keep silence on that subject in the drawing rooms, since referring to anything that might have happened before 1620 was almost as if one had blasphemed.
Virgil Thomson would go on to visit Europe for the first time as a member of the Harvard Glee Club. He made Paris his home from 1925 to 1940.
Upon his return to the United States, Thomson--to use a tautlogy--was finally ready to become the Virgil Thomson we now know today.© 2016 The Classical Art, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.