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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Saturday, February 8

Virgil Thomson and Wallace Stevens in Hartford

Synopsis

On this day in 1934, an excited crowd of locals and visitors had gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, for the premiere performance of a new opera entitled "Four Saints in Three Acts."

The fact that the opera featured 16 saints, not 4, and was divided into 4 acts, not 3, was taken by the audience in stride, as the libretto was by the expatriate American writer, Gertrude Stein, notorious for her surreal poetry and prose. The music, performed by players from the Philadelphia Orchestra and sung by an all-black cast, was by the 37-year old American composer, Virgil Thomson, who matched Stein's surreal sentences with witty musical allusions to hymn tunes and parodies of solemn, resolutely tonal music.

Among the locals in attendance was the full-time insurance executive and part-time poet, Wallace Stevens, who called the new opera (quote): "An elaborate bit of perversity in every respect: text, settings, choreography, [but] Most agreeable musically… If one excludes aesthetic self-consciousness, the opera immediately becomes a delicate and joyous work all around."

The opera was a smashing success, and soon opened on Broadway, where everyone from Toscanini and Gershwin to Dorothy Parker and the Rockefellers paid a whopping $3.30 for the best seats—a lot of money during one of the worst winters of the Great Depression.

Music Played in Today's Program

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) Four Saints in Three Acts Orchestra of Our Time; Joel Thome, cond. Nonesuch 79035

Additional Information

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