The American composer Virgil Thomson was fond of writing what he called “portraits” –musical sketches of people he knew. When asked how he did this, Thomson replied: “I just look at you and I write down what I hear.”
One of these works – a portrait in disguise – premiered on today’s date in 1954 at the Venice Festival in Italy. Identified simply as his Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp, and Percussion, Thomson later confessed it was in fact a musical portrait of Roger Baker, a handsome young painter he had recently befriended.
Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City in 1896, studied music at Harvard, lived in Paris through much of the 1920s and 30s, and in 1940 became the music critic of The New York Herald-Tribune, a post he held until 1954. Thomson once defined the role of music critic as one who “seldom kisses, but always tells.”
But in 1954, Thomson decided fourteen years as a music critic was enough, and it was time to concentrate on his own music for a change. Perhaps not by coincidence, one of the friends who encouraged him to do so was Roger Baker, the artist “portrayed” by Thomson in his 1954 concerto.
Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989) — Flute Concerto (Mary Stolper, flute; Czech National Symphony; Paul Freeman, cond.) Cedille 046