Randall Thompson: American Composer

So, I seem to be in a musical mood again today, probably because of some things I’ve singing recently. Randall Thompson, the American composer, has been lurking around the corners of my mind. Some of my favorite choral compositions are his, including “The Last Words of David,” “Alleluia” (which has the hardest lyrics ever to remember 😉 ), and parts of the “Peaceable Kingdom.” He is probably better known for “Alleluia” and “Frostiana,” some of which I enjoy and some of which I just sigh and power through. When you ask people about American classical vernacular composers, I suspect more people would name Aaron Copeland than Randall Thompson. Charles Ives might come up, although in my case it would be with a mild shudder. Dissonance is not something I enjoy.

Thompson was born in 1899 and lived until 1985. He had an early interest in both music and teaching, and according to tradition, after failing to make the cut for the Harvard Glee Club, spent the rest of his life getting even, in this case with a sort of “I’ll show you!” He studied in Italy and became very interested in Renaissance polyphony, which every choral singer reading this will nod and murmur “We can tell.”

His most famous choral work, going by the number of people who 1) have sung it and/or 2) know the story of the premier, is the “Alleluia” which debuted in 1940 at the Tanglewood Festival. It was requested by the artistic director of the festival, written in four days, and given to the choir a few hours before the premier with the statement, “You won’t have trouble with the lyrics.” Which is true. Everything else about it gives you fits.

The “Alleluia” is a bit unusual in that it sounds good with a small group (8-12) or a large chorus. (It needs more bass than is commonly done, but that’s just me). You can certainly hear the Renaissance in it, as well as influences from Russian liturgical music, and American styles. It is pure beauty when done well, and a train-wreck when things go wrong. The tempo changes have sunk many a choir. BTDT twice, not counting rehearsal. Randall Thompson never believed in keeping the same tempo through the same piece. He also liked to write passages that seem as if they should accelerate, that you want to accelerate . . . and they don’t. With predictable results for the sloppy choir.

The larger composition of his that I dearly love, and have only gotten to do once, is “The Peaceable Kingdom.” it calls for a large and well-trained chorus, and uses some rather uncomfortable texts from the Old Testament. It ranges from sheer beauty to true holy terror. “Howl Ye for the Day of the Lord is at Hand” and “The Voice of the Multitude” are terrifying, both the words and the music. (“Howl Ye” actually follows “The Voice of the Multitude when the whole work is done.)

A friend of mine sang “The Peaceable Kingdom” in NYC in early October 2001. They opted to omit “The Voice of the Multitude” because it was just too much, given recent events.

But the closing number is beauty, pure beauty, even when done casually, for fun, in a stairwell. (The treble comes through a bit strong, just be aware that you don’t want to listen to this at full volume. And the conductor has a bit of fun at the end).

Randall Thompson was also a major influence on music education in the US. He directed the Curtis School of Music for two years, and was on the faculty at Harvard (the ultimate revenge?) and other places. I hear a bit of him in Morten Lauredsen’s early compositions, and in Whitaker.

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