Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein
At first glance, the American composer Virgil Thomson would seem an unlikely recipient of what may be the only surviving copy of Theodor Adorno’s revised translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik. There is an understandable tendency to see them as inhabiting different musical universes. Like Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Paul Bowles, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Robert Russell Bennett, Thomson was one of those Americans, born a decade before or after 1900, who journeyed to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. He made his name thanks to a series of collaborations with Gertrude Stein, the famous of which was his 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts. While Thomson’s “modernism” revolved around Stein and Satie, what Adorno saw as “neuen Musik” was defined by the work of the Second Vienna School. He studied composition with Alban Berg and championed Schoenberg’s work in the pages of Anbruch. As far as I can tell (the indexing in Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften is not friendly to casual readers) Adorno never discussed Thomson’s music and one will search in vain for any mention of Adorno in Tim Page’s comprehensive collection of Thompson’s musical criticism from the 1940s and early 1950s.
But a few scattered clues that complicate this picture have long been available. Adorno turns up twice in the 1988 edition of Thomson’s Selected Letters: once in a June 25, 1941 letter to a third party (which I will discuss below) and again in a July 29, 1942 letter from Thomson to Adorno (discussed by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise) advising Adorno against publishing an attack on Sibelius because its tone was “more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius.” But beyond their shared dislike of Sibelius, it has been hard to see what else they might have had in common.
The “Bright Little Man” and the Music Critic
Their relationship becomes somewhat clearer once we realize that a few pieces of the puzzle have been missing. If we look more closely at the only one of Thomson’s letters to Adorno that has been published, a few questions begin to emerge:
I find on clearing out my desk of the season’s unanswered mail that I have never done anything about your Sibelius article. I am sending it back to you, partly because our Sunday musical space has been so cut down that I would not have room to do much about it anyway, and partly because I don’t really like it very much. The article has good ideas and good phrases in it, but there is too much indignation. The tone is an aggravated one more likely to create antagonism towards yourself than toward Sibelius (181-182).
Perhaps because the last sentence jibes so well with the received image of Adorno — a critic of tonal music whose furious critiques were more likely do more damage to him than to their targets — we tend to gloss over the obvious question: prior to concluding that he didn’t really like the article all that much (and, in any case, no longer had the room “to do much about it”) just what was Thomson planning on doing with it?
The other letter included in the Selected Letters casts further light on what seems to have been going on. Responding to a letter from the poet and film critic Parker Tyler, Thomson wrote:
You are wrong in assuming that either the author or myself considers popular music to be wholly different as an art form from the highbrow stuff. Quite the contrary, many of the factors involved, both the psychological and the industrial ones, are identical in the two fields. Certain others, such as the formal esthetics of lengthy symphonic works or the merchandising procedures of radio companies, are utterly different, though the line of demarcation is not always sharply drawn. In any case the symphonic concert business, both on the air and off, is the subject of other studies by the same author and his associates at Columbia University. I hope to publish from time to time excerpts from those because I consider them of very great interest to musicians (167).
The “author” to whom Thomson refers is Adorno. He went on to explain to Tyler that
It isn’t that I am invariably in agreement with Adorno. It is rather that in the field of radio research, especially in so far as such research departs from strictly empirical procedures and ventures into the field of esthetics and psychology, it is more important right now that all the possible questions be raised than that they be answered with finality. Naturally, a good many of the conclusions stated in the studies are conclusions that persons like ourselves have arrived at many years ago by private judgment or intuition. I think it is not entirely without interest that such judgment should be given a new form of publicity, not one depending on wit or personal prestige, or one backed up by the sacred mumbo jumbo of scholarly research. At any rate, that is why I printed the excerpts (167-168).
He closed the letter by advising Tyler that, if he found himself in disagreement with Adorno, he should “write to him personally at the Institute for Social Research.”
You will find him a very bright little man indeed. He is both a professional philosopher and a trained composer, and his mind has all the best and the worst Germanic qualities (168).
So, it would seem that the Institute for Social Research’s “bright little man” had been sending the music editor of the Herald Tribune manuscripts since at least the summer of 1941 and that, while Thomson may have concluded that there wasn’t anything to be done with Adorno’s Sibelius article, he had found uses for earlier manuscripts.
The Thomson Papers at Yale contain seventeen letters (and one telegram). Nine of the letters (and one telegram) are from Adorno to Thomson, the remaining seven are responses by Thomson or his secretary. All but one of the letters date from the period 1941-1943; the outlier is a letter from Thomson to Adorno dating from 1957. Finally, Thomson’s papers contain two cards that Maragete Adorno sent out announcing Adorno’s death, along with the draft of letter he wrote expressing his condolences.
Much of the early correspondence between Thomson and Adorno has to do with the Sunday columns Thomson wrote shortly after he became the Tribune‘s chief music critic in October 1940. While Thomson incorporated many of his columns — along with reviews and material from other publications — into the three books that he published during his time at the Herald Tribune, only one of the columns drawing on Adorno’s work appeared in these collections. The other three were never reprinted. To understand how Thomson used the manuscripts that Adorno sent him, we can begin with a brief look at these columns.
Between January 1941 and May 1943 Thomson wrote four columns for the Herald Tribune that made use of Adorno’s work.
- “The ‘Hit’ Trade,” January 26, 1941.
- “How Popular Music Works,” June 15, 1941.
- “Radio Examined,” February 8, 1942
- “Processed Music,” May 16, 1943
Aside from an introductory paragraph by Thomson, the first and second columns consist of extensive quotations from texts that Adorno produced during the period when he was working on Paul Lazarsfeld’s Radio Research project. The first does not mention Adorno
by name but instead assigns credit to “Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld and his assistants” and goes on to quote sixteen paragraphs from Adorno’s 1939 “Plugging Study”. The second column quotes ten paragraphs from “On Popular Music,” an article by Adorno (and ”written with the assistance of George Simpson”) that appeared in the Institute for Social Research’s journal in 1941. Thomson wrote a brief introduction that cited the article, recommended it “to the serious attention of musicians,” and hailed it as “packed with meaty matter.” The third column is a discussion of Radio Research 1941, a collection of papers from the radio project edited by Lazarsfeld and his co-director Frank Stanton. Thomson gave pride of place to Adorno’s chapter on “The Radio Symphony.” He characterized it as “lengthy and recondite” but also criticized it for having skipped “over several matters that, though explicable, are nowhere sufficiently explained.” Ultimately, he was impressed by Adorno’s “terrifying” thesis — “It amounts to saying that the indiscriminate propagation of culture (from whatever noble motives) can operate easily, if not inevitably, toward the destruction of that culture” — and concluded that the “publications of Dr. Lazarsfeld and his associates make more cultural sense than any other writing on the subject I have yet encountered.”
In contrast to the first three columns, the fourth avoided quotation and instead provided a summary of Adorno’s discussion of the limitations of recordings of symphonic works. Though the column (the only one of the four that Thomson included in his collections of writings) does not mention Adorno by name, it does note that “these matters and their implications for culture are discussed in the published reports of Columbia University’s Institute for Social Research.”
So much for the published record. To understand how Thomson learned of Adorno’s work, as well as the relationship that grew out of it, we must turn to their correspondence.
The first of the letters from Adorno preserved in the Thomson Papers dates from April 24, 1941 — three months after the appearance of the first column — and was accompanied by a copy of Studies in Philosophy and Social Science — the continuation, in English, of the Institute’s house journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. The volume Adorno enclosed was a special issue on mass communication, jointly produced by the Institute and the Office of Radio Research. It included Adorno’s article on popular music. As Adorno explained,
After the kind interest you took in our study on Plugging I hope you will also be interested in the study on Popular Music which has grown out of the same field of critical thought. Two more studies of mine, one on the changes serious music undergoes by radio and one a critical analysis of the Damrosch Music Appreciation Hour, are going to be published during this year.
Thomson did not respond to Adorno’s letter until two weeks before the publication of his column “How Popular Music Works” (June 4, 1941). His letter thanked Adorno for the copy of the journal, expressed the hope that Adorno would continue to “supply” him with such material, and explained that he would “welcome the occasion to give it, through mention or discussion in Sunday column as wide a dissemination” as he could. He went on to stress that he found “all the musical articles in it of the most absorbing interest” — Adorno would like have found it hard to overlook the fact that his was only “musical article” in the issue.
The day after the publication of “How Popular Music Works” Adorno wrote to thank Thomson “wholeheartedly” for his letter of June 4 and for the prominence Thomson had given his work in his June 15 column.
It goes without saying that your action does not only help considerably, in spreading the ideas I suggest, but it is also very important for the continuation of my studies in this ﬁeld. I am, of course, most curious to discuss with you some of the problems involved. Would you kindly let me know whether and when I could see you?
At the same time Adorno sent Thomson, under separate cover, a mimeograph copy of a paper he had read “about two years ago” at the Office of Radio Research: “Sketchy as it is, it may give you an idea of the total approach which I pursue in the music study on radio.” He informed Thomson that his discussion of “the structural changes serious music undergoes through radio” would be appearing shortly in the volume Radio Research 1941 and that his “extensive critical analysis of the Damrosch Appreciation Hour” was slated to appear in the “the third volume of our Studies in Philosophy of Social Science.” As it turned out, the journal ceased publication in the spring of 1942 and Adorno’s article on Damrosch would not appear until 1994. Adorno closed the letter by noting, “Further studies are going to be completed soon and I shall be delighted to let you have any study on music which I regard as tolerably satisfactory.”
At this point the pace of the correspondence began to accelerate. Adorno wrote Thomson again on June 27 (perhaps in response to points discussed in person) to offer his “little contribution to my campaign against the appreciation racket.” Adorno’s “little contribution” was the copy of his study of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour that has been preserved in the Thomson papers along with Adorno’s translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik. The letter closes with the first reference to the latter: “Incidentally, what do you think about a little article concerning the problem of 12-tone technique?”
Four days later Adorno wrote Thomson again to inform him that Lazarsfeld would have no objections to Thomson’s using the article on the NBC Music Appreciation Hour in one of his future columns. “I hardly need to stress,” he concluded, “how important it would be for me if you should see any possibility either of publishing some excerpts or of discussing it from your point of view.”
Against the “Appreciation Racket”
There is every reason to think that Thomson would have been a sympathetic reader of Adorno’s work, especially his critique of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour. Prior to assuming his position at the Herald Tribune Thomson had mounted a blistering attack on what he dubbed “the Appreciation-racket” in The State of Music, his wide-ranging 1939 account of the “musical profession.”
Every composer is approached from time to time by representatives of the Appreciation-racket and offered money to lecture or to write books about the so‐called Appreciation of Music. Unless he is already tied up with the pedagogical world, he usually refuses. If he makes his living as a teacher, refusal is difficult. I’ve seen many a private teacher forced out of business for refusing to “co‑operate” with the publishers of Appreciation‐books. Refusal of public‐school credits for private music-study is the usual method of foreclosure. The composer who teaches in any educational institution except a straight conservatory is usually obliged to “co-operate.” The racket muscles in on him. His name will be useful; his professional prestige will give a coloration of respectability to the shady business. He is offered a raise and some security in his job. He usually accepts.(121)
Thomson had nothing against the sort of “digests of useful information” that other professions regularly offered lay readers.
Simplified explanations of the copyright laws, of general medicine for use in the home, of the mathematics of relativity, of how to build a canoe, a radio‐set, or a glider, of home dressmaking, of garden‐lore, of how to acquaint yourself with classical archaeology in ten volumes, and of how to see Paris in ten days — this literature is in every way legitimate. (121-122)
But problem with the “Appreciation-literature” was that it provided “no firm knowledge and describes no real practice.” The closest analogy to it that Thomson could find were “physical culture” advertisements, which promised to “augment the muscularity and the virile forces of any customer who will buy the book and do what it says for five minutes a day.” Just as “five minutes a day of gymnastics, any kind of gymnastics, with or without a book” might result in a “temporary enlargement of the muscles exercised,” so too a “deliberate listening to music, any kind of music, five minutes a day for a week will sharpen momentarily the musical listening‐ability.”
Had the “Appreciation-racket” presented itself merely as a way of “habituating listeners to musical sounds,” it would have amounted to little more than “a legitimate advertising device, destined, with luck, to swell the number of possible concert-customers” (123). But, in fact, it was nothing less than a fraud.
The basic sales-trick in all these manifestations is the use of the religious technique. Music is neither taught nor defined. It is preached. A certain limited repertory of pieces, ninety per cent of them a hundred years old, is assumed to contain most that the world has to offer of musical beauty and authority. (125).
Like other applications of the “religious technique” the Appreciation-racket excluded any questioning of its basic premises and sought to cultivate in its consumers the conviction that “musical non-consumption is sinful.” And it was ready to supply sinners with a requisite set of penitential rituals, which Thomson summarized as follows:
A. Buy a book.
B. Buy a gramophone.
C. Buy records for it.
D. Buy a radio.
E. Subscribe to the local orchestra, if there is one.
None of these actions, he noted, had anything to do with cultivating an understanding of music: “They are at best therapeutic actions destined to correct the customer’s musical defects without putting him through the labors of musical exercise” (126).
A brief summary of the articles of the faith that readers were likely to find in the typical “Appreciation-book” followed, once again in list form:
A. That the music discussed is nearly all symphonic. Chamber-music (except string‐quartets) and the opera are equally neglected.
B. That the examples quoted are virtually the same in all the books.
C. That they are quoted from a small number of musical authors.
D. That 90% of them were written between 1775 and 1875 and are called Symphony Number Something‑or‐Other. (126-127)
Though the diatribe Thomson offered differed dramatically in style from the account Adorno provided in his studies, the two accounts had much in common, beginning with their affection for the term “racket.”
By the early 1940s, the term had begun to crop up in various internal documents produced by the Institute as a way of characterizing the way class relations had been changed with the advent of monopoly capitalism. In a manuscript dating from 1941 Adorno summarized the transformation this way:
In the image of the latest economic phase, history is the history of monopolies. In the image of the manifest act of usurpation that is practiced nowadays by the leaders of capital and labor acting in consort, it is the history of gang wars and rackets.
Like Adorno, Thomson situated his critique of the “Appreciation-racket” within the context of the increasingly active role that large corporations played in the production and dissemination of cultural goods.
The impresario business has begun recently, both in Europe and in America, to follow the big-business pattern of interlocking directorates and mergers. Ninety‐nine percent , at least, of concert engagements in the United States now take place under the direction either of the Columbia Concerts Corporation, an affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting Service, or of the N.B.C. Artists’ Service, an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Corporation, which in turn is financed by the same sources as the Radio Corporation of America and as Radio‑Keith‐Orpheum, a cinema‐producing‐and‐exhibiting consortium operating under patents controlled by the General Electric Company (State of Music 66).
All that was lacking in Thomson’s discussion was the term that Horkheimer and Adorno would eventually coin to designate this strange new creature: Kulturindustrie.
It is likely that Adorno’s interest in sharing the fruits of his labors at the Radio Research project had something to do with the fact that — after protracted difficulties in reconciling his approaches with those of Lazarsfeld and in the face of Stanton’s opposition to his continued presence on the staff — funding for Adorno’s portion of the project had been terminated in the spring of 1940. With the Institute’s finances in considerable disarray because of questionable investments, the future prospects of its associates were by no means certain. At this point Horkheimer had already left New York for Los Angeles, where he was beginning work with Herbert Marcuse on his long-planned book on “dialectics.” While there were plans for Adorno to come west as well, the question of who would wind up where would not be resolved until the autumn of 1941. All of this may have been more than enough to provide an incentive for Adorno — whose time at the radio project had taught him something about how the game was played — to look for ways to raise his profile.
Thomson’s role went beyond publishing portions of Adorno’s work in his columns. During the spring of 1940 Adorno had cobbled together the work he had been doing on the radio project into a book manuscript entitled Current of Music and unsuccessfully attempted to publish it with Oxford University Press. Adorno’s letter of June 27, 1941 indicates that — presumably acting on a suggestion Thomson had made — he met with Frances Phillips, an editor at Thomson’s publisher William Morrow.
She was exceedingly nice and seemed to be seriously interested in the matter, but, of course, she could not make any decision before having gone through the material.
The “material” Phillips examined was the manuscript that Adorno had attempted to place with Oxford.
His efforts at William Morrow proved to be no more successful. On July 8 he wrote to Thomson and informed him that “Miss Phillips has declined to publish my book.” He enclosed a copy of the letter Phillips had sent him the previous day:
I have read a good deal of the material you left with me, and I have discussed it with my associates, and I am sorry to tell you that I do not think this is a book for our list. For one thing, this is hard reading for the layman. In talking to you the points came out clearly but in reading this (I am speaking now of On a Social Critique of Radio Music) I had to work hard to make out the meaning. I rather suspect this is the fault of your collaborator, who has an academic style — at least, you do not talk that way. But in this I may be quite wrong.
But even if the excellent ideas expressed quite often in the manuscript were put into livelier and more readable English I do not think there would be a large enough audience for this book to satisfy you as author or justify us as publishers. It would be a valuable book, and in times less grim than these a publisher might feel he could indulge in it.
Thomson also attempted to find a place for Adorno’s study of the NBC Music Appreciation hour. In a letter to Adorno dated October 29, 1941 he informed Adorno that he had spoken with Minna Lederman, the editor of Modern Music (the quarterly journal of the League of Composers) and reported, “She seems to be not unfavorably disposed.” He mentioned that he had also “interested the editors of a magazine called Tomorrow who think they might like to publish it serially.”
Between 1941 and 1951 Tomorrow was a monthly magazine of literary and public affairs, published and edited by Eileen Lyttle Garrett, a spiritualist and medium who, in the years after 1951, recast the publication as a quarterly journal of psychic research (the mind boggles at the prospect of an article by the author of “The Stars Down to Earth” appearing in what would soon become a journal trading in matters parapsychological). Thomson’s links to the journal seemed to run through Harold Vursell (their paths may have crossed in Paris), who would later go on to have a distinguished career at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thomson urged Adorno to provide Vursell with a copy of the music appreciation article, explaining that he had sent his copy of the article (in what may have been yet another attempt to call attention to Adorno’s work) to Mina Kirstein Curtiss, a member of the English faculty at Smith College, who Thomson may have met through his connections with Orson Wells’ Mercury Theater of the Air (the finding aid for Curtiss’ papers at Smith indicate that she may have played a role in 1938 “The War of the Worlds” broadcast).
It was not until December 19 that Adorno — now settled in Los Angeles and finally at work with Horkheimer on what would become Dialectic of Enlightenment — got around to responding to Thomson’s October letter. He reported that Ledermann had expressed “her utmost interest” in the musical appreciation article and was “pretty confident” that “a separate publication in Modern Music” could be worked out with the Office of Radio Research. He enclosed a “rough draft of an English version of my little article on Sibelius which, as perhaps you remember, appeared in our periodical three years ago” and — in keeping with what had now becoming their established routine — advised him, “If you think it worthwhile, do with it whatever you please. I know the matter could be in no better hands than yours.”
Once again conforming to their settled routine, Adorno responded to the publication of Thomson’s “Radio Examined” with the following telegram:
MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University
In contrast, the publication of “Processed Music” in May 1943 passed without comment. Their correspondence, however, continued.
“A Little Article Concerning the Problem of 12-tone Technique”
I will have more to say about Adorno’s California correspondence with Thomson in the sequel to this post. For now it may be enough to try to pin down the date when Adorno sent Thomson his draft translation of “The Philosophy of Modern Music” and to speculate on what Thomson made of it.
As noted above, Adorno first broached the possibility of “a little article concerning the problem of 12-tone technique” at the close of his June 27, 1941 letter to Thomson. On July 2 Thomson responded, “An article about the problem of 12-tone technique might be interesting or not. I can’t tell in advance, Why don’t you try?” The article does not turn up again until October 21, 1942 when Adorno closed a lengthy letter to Thomson (about which I will have much more to say next time) by noting,
It may interest you to know that Mr. Runes withdrew from his obligation to publish my “Philosophy of Advanced Music” in an almost incredibly rude and ill-bred manner. Mr. Damrosch still rests, too.
With the prospect of publication in Runes’ journal now foreclosed, Adorno forwarded his corrected copy to Thomson. While it is uncertain when he sent it, Thomson must have had the manuscript in his possession by the summer of 1943. On August 14, 1943, Adorno — who, from the letterhead, seems to have been vacationing at the Casa Loma Inn in the Poconos (Note to self: write a post on where the members of the Frankfurt School took their summer vacations!) — wrote Thomson that,
I am happy that you like my study and it will give me great pleasure if you quote from it. I have to ask you only one favor. It concerns Schoenberg. My personal relations to him are rather strained while he, at the same time, is lonely, isolated and in not too great a situation. I do not want to hurt the old man. Would you, therefore, select passages which you regard as not offensive, and make it clear that I regard his work, notwithstanding my criticism, as the world-shaking musical achievement of our time. I should be most grateful if you could put the emphasis in such a way that A. S. does not react antagonistically. Many thanks for the trouble you take, once more, with my tiresome writings.
On September 10, 1944 — three days before Arnold Schoenberg’s seventieth birthday — Virgil Thomson offered an assessment of Schoenberg’s work in his column for the Tribune. It is hard to tell whether there was anything in it that might have offended the notoriously prickly Schoenberg and it is even harder to determine what it might have owed to the manuscript that Adorno had sent him. But while Adorno’s name is never mentioned in Thomson’s brief discussion, there are passages — for example, “This preponderance of methodology over objective is what gives to Schönberg’s work, in fact, its irreducible modernity” — that, perhaps, would not have been out of place in the “manuscript in a bottle” that has been resting for the last several decades in Thomson’s papers.
To be continued …
MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University