Randall Thompson (1899–1984) achieved iconic status as an American composer of choral music in the middle decades of the twentieth century. While many of his works have remained firmly in the current repertoire—including such works as Frostiana, and the hugely popular anthem, Alleluia, which has been performed all over the world—he had begun falling out of fashion even during his lifetime. This was due in part to the movement towards the avant-garde after the Second World War, and also because much of his music was choral. Thompson felt passionately about writing choral music. In an address to the Intercollegiate Music Council at Yale University in May 1959, he said in his opening remarks:
“At the height of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de Medici wrote a wonderful poem which opens with these words:
Chi non è inamorato
Esca da questo ballo.
“It is easy Italian, but a hard couplet to put into English. One might say it meant, “Anybody not in love will now please quit the ballroom.” Or: “Let anyone who is not lovesick leave the dance floor.” I quote this because, by analogy, if there is anyone here who is not in love with choral music, now is his chance to slip away. If he is not in love with choral singing, let him leave. I am a passionate devotee of choral music. I always have been. But as I set out to tell you what I think and feel about it, I must warn you: I’m on fire about it; and if you don’t want to hear what a fanatic has to say on the subject, please go away. (Randall Thompson, “Writing for the Amateur Chorus: A Chance and a Challenge.” American Choral Review, Volume 22, No. 2; April, 1980; p. 5).
Thompson especially delighted in writing choral music for amateurs, and this propensity may have been the biggest contributing factor in his flagging popularity. In the same address at Yale, quoted above, he said, “What gives me the greatest joy and the deepest inner satisfaction, and what I regard as the highest reward of all, is to know that the choral music I write is sung by boys and girls, men and women who are amateurs— and it is well to remember that the original meaning of the word is entirely positive. I put the notes on paper: they sing it; they are doing something they love to do, just as I have been.”
The music on this CD reflects Thompson’s love of writing for voices, his love of language and poetry, and his everpresent craft as a composer. While most of the music was written with the amateur choir in mind, it is not always “easy” music, nor does it condescend to the singer. Much of it is challenging to sing well, but all of it affords substantial rewards for both singer and audience.
Thompson was born in New York City as Ira Randall Thompson, the son of an English teacher and editor of poetry anthologies for school use. His father taught from 1904 to 1929 at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where Thompson grew up. He began piano lessons at age four or five, and also learned the organ. In 1911, he entered the Lawrenceville School, where he studied piano and organ, and later took harmony and counterpoint. (The biographical information in this short essay is drawn from Randall Thompson: A Bio-Bibliography, by Caroline Cepin Benser and David Francis Urrows. It is published by Greenwood Press and is highly recommended to those with a further interest in Thompson.)
In 1916, Thompson began studies at Harvard, where he wrote a variety of music: songs, chamber, piano, and choral (including the setting of Longfellow’s The Light of Stars, included on this recording). After graduation, Thompson studied with Swissborn composer Ernest Bloch, and then returned to Harvard in 1921 to take a master’s degree. During a fellowship to Rome, he completed The Last Invocation(also included on this recording). This period—from 1922 to 1925—was enormously important for Thompson; he read widely in the Renaissance Italian poets and the classical poet Horace (Thompson visited the presumed Fountain of Bandusia, featured in one of Horace’s Odes), and also made the acquaintance of the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, who had just begun his important edition of Monteverdi’s works. Malipiero imbued Thompson with a love of Renaissance music and also influenced him with his own neo-classic style (most directly seen in Thompson’s Odes of Horace).
Thompson’s passion for choral music and the teaching of good choral singing led him to teach at various colleges and universities throughout his career. His standards were high; as one of his students at Wellesley College said, “Rehearsals with R. T. frequently left me exhausted—sometimes even shaking with the effort we all put into trying to meet his standards—but tingling with the excitement of undertaking something just beyond our capability, and managing to do the seemingly impossible.” (David Francis Urrows, Randall Thompson: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1991; p. 17). Thompson also later headed a committee to look into musical curriculum by the Association of American Colleges, ultimately writing a document that would have a major effect on musical curricula.
In 1935 Thompson received a commission from the League of Composers, which led to one of his best-known choral works, The Peaceable Kingdom. As Director of the Curtis Institute between 1939 and 1941, he met Leonard Bernstein (who studied orchestration with him) and Samuel Barber. He later taught at Princeton for two years, and returned to Harvard in 1948 as Professor of Music, where he would teach very happily until his official retirement in 1965.
The Harvard years were prolific ones for Thompson; he wrote such works as the Requiem, Nativity According to St. Luke, and Frostiana. After retirement, he continued to compose chamber music and a number of choral works, including the Two Herbert Settings and Five Love Songs performed on this recording. In 1975 he suffered a stroke, which impaired both eyesight and coordination and slowed his work considerably. In 1976 he met David Francis Urrows, who studied with him privately and became his amanuensis, and with whom he completed the Five Love Songs. His final work was Twelve Canticles, finished in 1983.