A Picture of Paris: Virgil Thomson’s The Seine at Night

January 10, 2019
Ray Heigemeir
Virgil Thomson's manuscript for The Seine at Night

Guest blogger: Elea McLaughlin

The Seine at Night, original manuscript by Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989) 
Memorial Library of Music, MLM 1087

In his program notes, Virgil Thomson describes his single-movement orchestral piece The Seine at Night as “a memory of Paris and its river, as viewed from one of the bridges to the Louvre.”[1]The melody depicts the rippling water of the Seine, with distant fireworks and a light sprinkle of rain heard throughout the piece. Composed in 1947, The Seine at Night was later combined with two of Thomson’s other scenic works – Wheat Field at Noon (1948) and Sea Piece with Birds (1952) – that were published collectively as Three Pieces for Orchestra. Biographer Paul Wittke compares the act of listening to the Three Pictures for Orchestra to the way one experiences a painting by Cézanne or Mark Rothko. “They tell no story, have no implied action, no symbolic meaning” – they simply are.[2]

Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City in 1896. He moved to Paris in 1925, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and joined a circle of intellectuals that included Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and writer Gertrude Stein. When Thomson returned to the United States in 1940, he took a job at the New York Herald Tribune and worked as the chief music critic there for fourteen years. 

In an issue of The Musical Quarterly from July 1, 1948, composerHenry Cowell recalled the following anecdote in his review of the New York concert season: 

When recently Virgil Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune and The Seine at Night were played over for friends, one of the group asked: "How does it happen, Mr. Thomson, that you have two such widely different styles? The Symphony is so stark and plain, the new tone-poem so delicately impressionistic in color?" "Oh," said Thomson blandly, "the Symphony on a Hymn Tune was written to present Kansas City to Parisians, and The Seine at Night is intended to describe Paris to people from Kansas City."[3]

Cowell’s review was written about four months after Thomson’s hometown premiere of The Seine at Night. Commissioned and performed by the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, it premiered on February 24, 1948, under the direction of Efrem Kurtz. Thomson is well remembered for his iconoclastic operas “The Mother of Us All” and “Four Saints in Three Acts,” both with librettos by Gertrude Stein, in addition to his folk-inspired composition style. But The Seine at Night brings out a different side of the composer – more dissonant, with hints of polytonality and archaic echoes of Gregorian chant are embedded in the melody.

Virgil Thomson's manuscript for The Seine at Night
Virgil Thomson

While the piece was well received in New York City, its contrasting musical elements provoked greatly differing responses elsewhere. The Seine at Night merges the ‘bareness of Protestant hymns’ that were popular in Paris with the chromaticism favored in the United States. The overlay of these dissimilar elements was interpreted by Cowell as a ‘glaring simplicity’ obscured by a dissonant façade. Yet others received the piece as a surprising but welcome shift in Thomson’s style. Thomson’s cultural fusion of Kansas City and Paris is evident in his music and writing styles, and perhaps this combination has resulted in the mixed reception of his works. In a four-page analysis of the piece, John Cage wrote that some listeners may find The Seine At Night boring because of Thomson’s understated compositional techniques. For instance, his depiction of fireworks exploding over the Seine “lack brilliant bursts of color,” instead opting for a more subtle impression of the landscape. Yet this subtlety is precisely what Cage praised Thomson for. He described the piece as “music that is genuine as an object, never setting out, as that of others sometimes does, to interrupt one’s activity of listening in order to establish the brilliance of the composer’s mind of the depth of his emotional perceptions.”[4]

The holograph manuscript and inscribed first edition of The Seine at Night now resides in the Memorial Library of Music in Stanford’s Department of Special Collections. On the manuscript’s final page of music is Thomson’s signature, dated December 31, 1947. The manuscript was purchased for the Memorial Library of Music in 1950 and bound in a hardcover book for the library’s Special Collections Reading Room. According to letters sent between Memorial Library of Music donor George T. Keating, curator Nathan Van Patten, and Thomson, this was the first manuscript that Thomson ever sold. He was unsure of how much money to ask for his manuscript, but gladly accepted Van Patten’s offer of $400. 

[1]Virgil Thomson, Virgil Thomson: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1924-1984, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Routledge, 2002), 278. 

[2]Paul Wittke, Virgil Thomson (Virgil Thomson Foundation, 1996), 30. 

[3]Henry Cowell, “New York,” The Musical Quarterly 34, no. 3 (July 1948): 413.

[4]John Cage and Kathleen Hoover, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1959), 204-5. 


Elea McLaughlinElea McLaughlin is a doctoral student in Musicology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on gender issues in minstrelsy and the racial legacy of American popular entertainment.