An informal poll among friends in New York (some musicians, some not) points up considerable divergence of opinion about the present stature of Virgil Thomson (1896– 1989), the American composer and critic who is now the subject of an incisive and not at all hagiographical biography by Anthony Tommasini, a music critic for The New York Times.

For a start, it should be said that Virgil Thomson’s reputation is now based primarily on two things. First, he was the composer of two influential American operas written in collaboration with Gertrude Stein: Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947). The second source of his current reputation is the witty yet unremittingly highbrow music criticism he wrote for The New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and the fall of 1954. Thomson’s position as a serious composer who also held a critic’s post on a major...


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