Thursday, September 22, 2011

Virgil Thomson, Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Thrift stores are like cultural graveyards. They're full of literally discarded artifacts that have been judged to hold no value. That's where I buy the bulk of my classical LPs. Even Amoeba Records has reduced its classical section by more than half. The number of people in this country who listen regularly to classical music is probably comparable to the number of people in the twelfth century who knew how to read. Or at least that what I fancy to be the truth.

After going months without seriously listening to classical music, I jumped back on the bandwagon recently. The work that got me back on was Virgil Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune, picked up at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store for 50 cents along with a number of other seemingly unplayed classical LPs. Thomson is better known as a music critic and writer, who was an active member of the Modernist movement of the 20th century. He hung out with the likes of Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. I had never heard any of his musical works. So I was surprised when I listened to Symphony on a Hymn Tune. I was expecting a Modern (i.e., dissonant) work along the lines of Charles Ives, an American contemporary of Thomson's. Instead, the Symphony is tonal and melodic, almost Romantic. More importantly, it is moving and strangely comforting in the way the best classical works are.

Those few in the Middle Ages who knew how to read probably also listened to complex, polyphonic music of the time. They probably found in the notes strung together a salve to the soul that did/does not exist in other earthly delights. Thomson's work makes that connection to the past and the profundity of a hymn and makes it more relatable to a modern, agnostic mind (at least mine).

In my relatively brief lifetime, I've never seen a society celebrate ignorance and kitsch more than it does now. Whether the demise of classical music is symptomatic of this general trend is debatable. I fear it is, which is unfortunate, because classical music can endow us with a sense of humanity. It's heartening to discover a new piece of music that can stir the soul, and on a personal note, that the soul is still receptive to others calling.

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