Music with Words


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A Composer`s View

Virgil Thomson

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In this practical, stylish, and authoritative book, one of America’s most influential musical figures reveals how he learned to compose music for English poetry and prose. Illustrated with numerous examples from his own works, Virgil Thomson’s discourses on the union of poetry and music will delight and instruct anyone who composes, performs, or simply listens to vocal music.

"The actual words about music occupy roughly half of the book; the remaining pages comprise musical examples and illustrations from the author's published works with brief annotations. . . . But this is not a recipe book. Thomson shows not how it's done but how it could be done. The style of doing it remains the prerogative of the reader. Nor is the subject matter dry, of little interest to the casual admirer of music and song."—Murray Dineen, Dalhousie Review

"This slim and attractive volume . . . merits a permanent place alongside the collections of Thomson’s articles and letters as the considered wisdom of one of our sagest and most literate composers on the subject of the marriage of tone and word."—Jon Alan Conrad, Opera Quarterly


"This fascinating book offers us a satisfying helping of musical experience and wisdom from a long life largely occupied with the bringing together of words and music, well seasoned with the author’s characteristic wit and self-assuredness. . . . A handsome volume. . . . Thomson’s observations are acute, as always, and often startling. . . . Virgil Thomson has left us a treasury of musical insight that we can consult again and again with profit and pleasure."—Douglas Leedy, Notes


"Addressed to composers, of interest to performers, this master class with one of America’s most treasured composers is one anyone who loves opera in English could enjoy. For all large music collections."—Library Journal

"Stressing the importance of the interdependence of words and music, Thomson offers practical suggestions and encourages both novice and experienced composers to explore this relationship in their writings."—Music Educators Journal

"Thomson’s common musical sense and his lifetime of experience with the art of music shine through Music with Words."Bryan R. Simms, Los Angeles Times

"Here is a charming and, in its ways, erudite book for all who love sounding out words or parts of words in tonal styled compositions... It is written by a true American archetype . . . one of America’s authentic originals belonging in the company of a Henry James and having the experience of collaborating with Gertrude Stein in preparing and theatrically serving her words in two infamous operas. . . . Can be useful to all types of composers at any age or stage and could greatly increase the level of consciousness of how words and music with words. Even if one does not read music (half the book is music illustrating the ideas found in the verbal text and is mostly Thomson’s own music), this book speaks to all."—Antioch Review

"In this collection of mostly new essays, American composer and critic Virgil Thomson reveals how he learned to compose music set to English poetry and prose, both opera and song, illustrating his ideas with numerous examples from his own works, and offering practical suggestions to today’s composers."—Paul Crapo, Schwann CD

"It is the setting forth of the fruits of his experience as a vocal composer; and it will be of interest primarily to the student composer, the singer, and the critic, in that order."—Choice

"Through his prose [Thomson] convincingly evoked the sound of new musical pieces, and through his musical pieces he continues to evoke the visual spectacle of all our pasts. . . . The pieces read smoothly . . . and are instructive if only because they expound, in new phrases, old theories long grasped by professional song composers. . . . By incising every lineament of the process, Thomson is able to teach literally any of us how to create a flawless song."—Ned Rorem, Times Literary Supplement

"Composers will read Music with Words for instruction, others will simply learn while enjoying."—Musical America

"Replete with musical examples, many from the late composer’s works, the book draws analogies between instrumental and vocal music, describes the way musical ideas evolve, and illustrates how texts are set to music."—Symphony

"Practical suggestions on how a melody is made and how a musical idea evolves."—Book Alert

"This final book [is] clear, original, and succinct. . . . Thomson makes remarkable use of the informal essay to review the history of opera. . . . This is an invaluable how-to manual for composers, listeners are sure to gain perspective from it [also]."—Daniel Webster and Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Peppery lectures by someone who knew what he was talking about."—Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

"[This book] reflects [Thomson’s] lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between words and music, and it is written from an extensive experience of the composition of vocal music. Its emphasis is on practical help in the composition and production of vocal works with English words, but it is also of interest to the general reader. . . . The picture of Thomson which emerges is that of an energetic composer and critic, who thinks about music with great intelligence and concentration and is able to articulate his ideas clearly in prose. He writes in a direct style, is dismissive of any mystique surrounding composition, and expresses sympathy and support for other composers."—Rosemary Williamson, Brio

"One of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and critics offers his thoughts on the art of composing music for words."—Allen Weakland, Booklist

"This delightful and informative book is a triply harmonious meeting of Virgil Thomson’s celebrated words with the meeting of text and music. It is of great value to listeners and performers both, and if it represents a composer’s view, it also manifests the writer’s art."—John Hollander

"Rare indeed are musicians who are equally capable of expressing their ideas in a cogent literary manner and to compose music in a distinctive personal style. Virgil Thomson is such a musician. In his Music with Words, he gives the reader an instructive view of the interdependence of music and words with ample illustrations from his own compositions."—Nicolas Slonimsky

"Nothing quite like this have ever existed before. Succinct, authoritative, no-nonsense, yet endearing, Virgil Thomson could be talking straight to you in those novel and ordered phrases from his novel and ordered parlor at the Chelsea. How I envy such unflagging, intelligent energy. I mean it complimentarily when I say that some of Virgil Thomson’s opinions jar me. For there is no one with whom I take more pleasure in disagreeing."—Ned Rorem

"There will no doubt be many absorbed readers. . . . For those who are not creators, this slim and attractive volume still merits a permanent place alongside the collections of Thomson’s articles and letters as the considered wisdom of one of our sagest and most literate composers on the subject of the marriage of tone and word. Its brevity may give cause for regret, but its achievement is genuine."—Jon Alan Conrad, Opera Quarterly
ISBN: 9780300209815
Publication Date: June 10, 2014
112 pages, 7 x 10