Working for Virgil
I arrived hot and tired, broke and cocky. To the left of the front doors of the grand old Chelsea Hotel hung a plaque on which were listed the names of former residents-giants of the 20s and 30s. At the bottom of the plaque, someone had used something sharp to scratch, "and Sid Vicious!"
Virgil looked like a crazy person, sitting in his wing chair, plucking alternately at the squealing hearing aids in his ears and squinting at me like a benignant swashbuckler as he quizzed me about my background. His belt wrapped around what had to be his chest; his chin seemed to stop where his tummy began. He was shaped like the illustrations of Tik-tok in L. Frank Baum's books. When, a few weeks earlier, Ned had told me that Virgil was looking for someone to do some orchestrating for him, I had pounced on the opportunity. "But you'll have to submit to an interview," said Ned. "No promises."
Born in Missouri in 1896, Thomson attended Harvard before spending an extended period in Paris where he studied with Boulanger and became a professional and social associate of that group of composers referred to as Les Six. As the powerful music critic of the New York Herald Tribune after returning to the States, he used his position to promote his career as a composer. His legendary collaboration with Gertrude Stein produced Four Saints in Three Acts, a work I've always thought indebted to Satie's brief opera Socrate. Author of eight books, including an autobiography, he received the Pulitzer Prize and no less than twenty honorary doctorates during the course of his long and fascinating career. His relationship with his pupil Ned was often rocky, but always affectionate. "I don't mind him stealing my moves," he quipped to me once. "I mind it when he says that he didn't."
"So what's it like being a young composer these days?" he shrieked. "Where do you get your money?" he continued, not waiting for me to answer. I leant forward in my chair, clasped my hands together in what I hoped was the picture of earnestness, and rolled out some sort of answer. I don't think he heard me. The earpieces started up again, this time on different pitches. He batted his ears. I winced. He turned his head just so and they were both silenced.
"I know all about being a young composer," he shouted, triumphantly. "It's all about optimizing your leisure time!"
"What's that? Call me Mr. Thomson, or Virgil. Or boss," he finished. Now his eyes were twinkling.
"No, I don't like that. Stick to Mr. Thomson."
"Okay!" I shouted.
"What was it like studying with Ned?" he asked, suddenly in a normal tone of voice.
"Wonderful," I shouted. "Great!" I gave a "thumbs up."
"You don't have to shout!" he shouted. "I'm not deaf, you know! Okay. Right," he barreled on.
"Look, I have some piano pieces I want you to orchestrate, and some orchestra pieces I want you to turn into piano pieces. Plus, I need you to do a piano reduction of Louisiana Story. Can you do that?"
"Read my article How Composers Eat, baby," Virgil said. "I have," I shouted. "Good. Don't get stuck working on other men's music! I mean being a performer, a copyist, a professor, a critic, or getting into the appreciation-racket. Marry rich, if you can. Remain affably pushy. Try not to succumb to a conducting career-the money's good, but it kills your music."
I was hired, and worked for Virgil for nine months. Once in awhile, I ran into his secretary, Lou Rispoli, but I don't recall that Virgil ever actually asked to see any of the work I had done. Nevertheless, he wanted to supervise my work, he said; consequently, I was to bring my gear to the Chelsea and do all of the work at the table in his living room.
He was exceedingly kind to me, and treated me in a comradely fashion, like a younger colleague who, as he would say, was "on the make."
"Virgil is sort of your musical grandfather," Ned told me around that time. "There are exactly as many years between you and me as there are between myself and Virgil." Lineage means a lot to me, so I was proud that Ned had taken orchestration lessons from Virgil in the same room forty years earlier, had copied parts for him at the same table at which I was then working.
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