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Virgil Thomson Papers

Identifier: CoU-AMRC-89

Scope and Contents

Personal papers of Virgil Thompson (1896-1989), American composer and music critic, writer for the Boston Transcript and New York Herald Tribune, including correspondence with numerous composers; general correspondence; travel notes and genealogy. Collection consists of photocopies of original materials held by Yale University.


  • Creation: 1920-1980


Open, however, original collection owned by Yale University.

Publication Rights

Copyright is not held by the American Music Research Center. Requests to publish materials should be directed to the copyright holder.

Biographical Sketch of Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson, noted American composer and critic was born in Kansas City, Mo., November 25, 1896. His collaboration with Gertrude Stein produced two highly unusual stage works, and his career in journalism established him as one of the sharpest music critics in the United States.

He began his music career at age five when he learned to play piano and later organ. In 1919, he entered Harvard where he was influenced by three men: French trained composer Edward Burlingame Hill, with whom he studied orchestration and modern French music; French trained Archibald T. Davison, conductor of the Harvard Glee Club, for whom he was assistant and accompanist; and S. Foster Damon, a Blake scholar, poet, and composer, who introduced Thomson to the works of Satie and Gertrude Stein.

Thomson began to compose at Harvard in 1920. In 1921 he went to France where he studied at the Ecole Normale with Boulanger. During this time he composed and wrote music notices for the Boston Transcript, his first published critical work. He graduated from Harvard in 1923 and with a grant from the Julliard School in New York, he studied conducting with Chalmers Clifton and counterpoint with Rosario Scalera.

Returning to Paris in 1925, Thomson lived there until 1940. He met Gertrude Stein in Paris and began composing for many of her texts, and together they produced an opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which was Thomson’s most famous work. He continued to expand his technical facility, especially in writing for string instruments.

In October 1940, Thomson was appointed music critic of the New York Herald Tribune. During the 14 years at the Tribune he established himself as one of the mojor critical writers of the era. His newspaper pieces were later published in three Anthologies: The Musical Scene, The Art of Judging Music, and Music, Right and Left.

Thomson continued to compose and in the 1950’s and 1960’s he traveled widely, lecturing at Universities and participating in conferences, writing articles, and conducting in the United States and Europe.

During his long career, he worked with several styles of music, but the greatest influence on Thomson was the music of Satie, and the Satian ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony, and humor which underlies the diversity of his work. Thomson received numerous awards which included an appointment to the Legion d’honneur. Virgil Thomson died in New York on September 30, 1989.

This collection consists of photocopies of correspondence from originals held by Yale University. Consult with Yale University before publication of any of this material. It contains materials from composers, conductors, performing artists, writers, and Thomson’s family.


25 linear feet

Language of Materials



Arranged chronologically and alphabetically by correspondent.

Physical Location

Housed in the American Music Research Center

The Virgil Thomson papers, 1920-1980
An inventory of holdings at the American Music Research Center
Conversion Draft
Cassandra M. Volpe
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States