Program Notes: Randall Thompson (1899 - 1984)


Cambridge composer Randall Thompson was born in New York in 1899 and died in Boston eighty-five years later. Between those dates, he established himself as the primary American figure in the renaissance of choral composition and performance. His long association with Harvard University began in the fall of1916 when he tried out for the Harvard Glee Club and was rejected by the conductor, Archibald Davidson. Thompson regarded the episode as formative and later concluded that “my life has been an attempt to strike back.” Thompson recovered enough to learn counterpoint, choral composition, and the history of the choral literature from Davidson and launched an academic and compositional career in both Europe and the United States before settling in Cambridge in the1940s. In addition to holding a music professorship at Harvard, Thompson was the chief architect of a significant survey, College Music, that ultimately revolutionized the teaching and performance of music in colleges and provided the basic blueprint for the way that  music education is integrated into the liberal arts curriculum. While Thompson composed significant and diverse instrumental works, including several symphonies and chamber and piano music, his enduring contribution has been to the choral literature.  

In 1958, the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts, invited Thompson to compose a work to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its incorporation. Because of the poet Robert Frost’s long association with Amherst as well as Thompson’s family connections to the town, he chose seven Frost poems and titled the suite of poems Frostiana: Seven Country Songs. In this performance we include three of the seven. The poetry and music provide a nostalgic glimpse of rural New England life, epitomized by “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. They emphasize the importance of the many small choices we are called upon to make. Over the whole choral cycle, Thompson produced lovely melodies and some dazzling instances of word painting with a notable piano accompaniment.

In "Choose Something Like a Star," the sopranos repeat six times "Oh, Star," holding the second word on a high D and providing an aural star for the rest of the chorus to address. "The Road Not Taken" begins in unison, but, like the road itself, diverges into harmony. At the conclusion of the bicentennial premiere in October 1959, Frost rose spontaneously from his seat and shouted to Thompson to repeat the final poem, “Choose Something Like a Star,” a practice that Thompson regularly repeated in subsequent performances.

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