Thomson’s understanding of “American Music” is a little too white…

What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise. I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?”     (Thomson)

I found it strange, as did several others, that Thomson is asking this question about “american music” in the seventies, given that by this time several distinctly american operas, such as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Menotti’s “Old Maid and the Thief,” had been performed by notable ensembles and groups in America as well as Europe. 


To know of these works, and then say he can’t predict the success of american opera seems to signal that either he doesn’t believe these works to be american music, or that they are outliers, and not representative of american musical traits.

Virgil’s bias is especially obvious when he pays homage to other composers, with more obviously White-European heritage, like Ives and MacDowell, and hails them as fathers of american style. To cherry-pick certain well known composers like this and then disregard the international successes of others seems to imply some judgement by Thomson of them being less American. 

Menotti was an Italian immigrant, and Gershwin was of Ukrainian/Lithuanian Jewish decent. MacDowell and Ives were both born in america to white american parents. Without assuming too much about Thomson’s intent, it does bring into question his understanding and perspective of American music in how it relates to “whiteness” rather than “American-ness,” and how he may harbor some elitist perceptions of American music in how it relates to white European music tradition, rather than the innovation and creativity of non-white Americans of various immigrant heritages.


Gershwin, George. Porgy and Bess, New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

Menotti, Gian-Carlo. The Old Maid and The Thief, New York: G. Ricordi & Co. inc. 1939

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

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