Composers Datebook®

Thomson's "Mother of Us All"

Virgil Thomson (1896 - 1989) The Mother of Us All Santa Fe Opera; Raymond Leppard, cond. New World 288

Composer's Datebook - May 7, 2022


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May 07, 2022


On today’s date in 1947, a new opera entitled “The Mother of Us All” debuted at Columbia University in New York City.

The libretto was by the American poet Gertrude Stein, and dealt with the life and times of Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century champion of women’s rights. In Stein’s dream-like account, iconic figures from America’s past like President John Adams, orator Daniel Webster, and entertainer Lillian Russell interact even though they lived at different times in history. Two of the opera’s 27 characters, playwright Constance Fletcher and Yale librarian Donald Gallup, in fact, were contemporary friends of Stein’s.

The music was by the American composer Virgil Thomson, whose score evoked seemingly familiar 19th century hymns, sentimental ballads, circus band music, drum rolls, and fanfares. The tunes were, in fact, all original creations. The mix of Thomson’s music and Stein’s text results in a rambunctious opera about American life and politics, at turns both amusing and strangely touching. It became an unlikely success.

Thomson wrote two other operas: “Four Saints in Three Acts,” from 1933, was an earlier collaboration with Gertrude Stein, and “Lord Byron,” from 1972, sets a witty libretto by Jack Larson, an actor famous for his portrayal of Daily Planet cub reporter Jimmy Olson on the old “Superman” TV series. “Lord Byron” was intended for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but never made it there, and performances these days are rare.

Music Played in Today's Program

Virgil Thomson (1896 - 1989) — The Mother of Us All (Santa Fe Opera; Raymond Leppard, cond.) New World 288

On This Day


  • 1833 - German composer Johannes Brahms, in Hamburg;

  • 1840 - Russian composer Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, in Votkinsk, district of Viatka (Julian date: April 25);

  • 1850 - Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, in Budapest; He was Wagner assistant at the first Bayreuth Festival performances of the "Ring" operas in 1876-79, was engaged to conduct the German repertory at the Metropolitan Opera in 1885, and in 1891 as the permanent conductor of the New York Philharmonic; He conducted the American premieres of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" in 1886 and the world premiere of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony in 1893; He died of ptomaine poisoning in 1898;


  • 1793 - Italian composer and violinist Pietro Nardini, age 71, in Florence;

  • 1818 - Bohemian composer Leopold (Jan Antonín, Ioannes Antonius)Kozeluch (Kotzeluch, Koželuh), age 70, in Vienna;

  • 1825 - Italian composer Antonio Salieri, age 74, in Vienna;


  • 1824 - Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna, with the deaf composer on stage beating time, but with the performers instructed to follow the cues of Beethoven's assistant conductor, Michael Umlauf;

  • 1888 - Lalo: "Le Roi d'Ys" (The King of Ys) at the Opéra Comique, in Paris;

  • 1926 - Milhaud: opera "Les malheurs d'Orphée" (The Sorrows of Orpheus), in Brussels at the Théatre de la Monnaie;

  • 1944 - Copland: "Our Town" Film Music Suite (revised version), by the Boston Pops conducted by Leonard Bernstein; An earlier version of this suite aired on CBS Radio on June 9, 1940, with the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony conducted by Howard Barlow;

  • 1947 - Virgil Thomson: opera "The Mother of Us All," at Columbia University in New York City;

  • 1985 - David Ward-Steinman: "Chroma" Concerto for multiple keyboards, percussion, and chamber orchestra, in Scottsdale, Ariz., by the Noveau West Chamber Orchestra conducted by Terry Williams, with the composer and Amy-Smith-Davie as keyboard soloists;

  • 1988 - Stockhausen: opera "Montag von Licht" (Monday from Light), in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala;

  • 1988 - Michael Torke: ballet "Black and White," at the New York State Theater, with the NY City Ballet Orchestra, David Alan Miller conducting;

  • 1993 - Harrison Birtwistle: "Five Distances for Five Instruments," in London at the Purcell Room, by the Ensemble InterContemporain;

  • 1998 - Joan Tower: "Tambor," by the Pittsburgh Symphony, Mariss Jansons conducting;

  • 1999 - Robert X. Rodriguez: "Bachanale: Concertino for Orchestra," by the San Antonio Symphony, Wilkins conducting;


  • 1747 - J.S. Bach (age 62) visits King Frederick II of Prussia at his court in Potsdam on May 7-8; Bach improvises on a theme submitted by the King, performing on the King's forte-piano; In September of 1747 Bach publishes a chamber work based on the royal theme entitled "Musical Offering."

  • 1937 - The RKO film "Shall We Dance?" is released, with a filmscore by George Gershwin; This film includes the classic Gershwin songs "Beginner's Luck," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and an instrumental interlude "Walking the Dog" (released as a solo piano piece under the title "Promenade").