Thompson's Third

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

In May of 1949, a Festival of Contemporary Music was underway at Columbia University in New York, and during that Festival (on today’s date, in fact) a new symphony received its first performance, by the CBS Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson. The work was a success, and was soon taken up by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and other major American composers. It was the Third Symphony of the American composer Randall Thompson, and one of his major orchestral works.

Thompson was born in 1899, and died in 1984. He juggled a busy career as a composer, with major posts at a variety of major American universities on both coasts, and managed, despite his teaching duties, to produce a sizeable body of chamber, orchestral, and vocal works.

These days, Randall Thompson is perhaps best known as a choral composer. His 1940 choral setting of the “Alleluia” has become a familiar choral repertory classic. Thompson’s orchestral works, on the other hand, are not heard all that often anymore, which seems a shame.

But then, as Thompson himself saw it, he was always writing for the American audiences of his own time. As he put it: “A composer’s first responsibility is and always will be to write music that will reach and move the hearts of his listeners in his own day... Literal and empty imitation of European models must be rejected in favor of our own genuine musical heritage in its every manifestation, every inflection, every living example.”