Dealing with Randall Thompson’s Choral Music

“Thompson has been largely dismissed in academic circles as an amateurs’ composer, but this categorization belies the technical challenges present in many of his works. Detractors have cited the popular directness of such works as Frostiana and the sentimentality and jingoism of The Testament of Freedom, but these are not characteristic of his style in general. Notwithstanding such criticisms, his choral music has been more widely performed than that of any other American composer up to his time; in 1968 the Alleluia was the best-selling choral work in the USA.” —Fredric Woodbridge Wilson (From Grove)

Randall Thompson, in his 1946 inaugural address at Princeton, wrote that “a composer’s first responsibility is, and always will be, to write music that will reach and move the hearts of his listeners in his own day.” A nationalist, he was an advocate for fostering a non-European American musical sound. He insisted that composers find inspiration in “our own genuine musical heritage in its every manifestation.” His second symphony certainly displays this attention to tunes reminiscent of the United States. That work sounds like a mix of musical ideas from Chadwick, Dvořák, and Still. His extremely obscure early piano sonata employs a healthy amount of chromaticism. Despite the mastery of his instrumental music, his often less interesting choral music is quite popular. Some of his earlier choral works, however, like the Odes of Horace, are actually interesting and worth some study, in addition to being beautiful.

It is a shame that his most famous choral works are probably his least interesting or satisfying to sing. His 1963 song The Best of Rooms, for instance, is painfully slow-going. Just looking at the bass part, his writing is as repetitive as a minimalistic piece, and less fresh-sounding. His music does not treat the voice with much friendliness, relying instead on the singer to drone on ceaselessly until the conductor mercifully ends the piece. I’ve seen it written in Facebook groups that Thompson generally was “fine in craft, but very minor in depth.” To qualify this statement, I’d be willing to say that the lack of horizontal interest he puts in lines contributes to that conception.


Just looking at the beginning of my least favorite piece of his, Choose Something Like a Star, the bass scarcely moves at all. Note the tempo. The piece moves by so slowly that each time I reach a downbeat, it feels like the rest of the measure will be just that much more work. In pieces like this, it is challenging to keep a line moving over so long a span. I admit that my method of how to determine the quality of a piece often lies in the interest in the individual voice, but I think that is a factor that highly contributes to depth. Just singing that part by itself is quite underwhelming.


At the end of the last example, there is a notational practice that Thompson (and, so far in my readings, only Thompson) employs: the staccato tied eighth note release. One of his students in the American Choral Directors’ Association National Facebook group pointed out that Thompson did that to indicate that the consonant would actually happen an eighth note earlier than written. Naturally my discomfort with this idea comes from his inconsistency. Not all final words ending in a consonant have a staccato eighth note. Sometimes, it ends right on the rest (such as the t of heart in measure 47 of the first example).

Thus, I have only one new addendum to my assertion from an earlier blog post about tied eighth notes: in Thompson’s music, it makes the most sense to hold the note to the beginning of the eighth note, then release a sixteenth note after the beat. In other words, change the staccato eighth note to a non-staccato sixteenth note, and you will have a definite spot to put the final consonant.

Obviously this is a case of overnotation. Why would Thompson make a distinction between the slightly-later-than-the-beat cut-off and the on-the-beat cut-off? It stands to reason that Thompson has a great deal of interest in overnotating. He does it all the time. Just look at a single line from his famous choral work, The Last Words of David:


There is scarcely any need to indicate all of those dynamics and articulations. A good musician could intuit pretty much 90% of what he writes in addition to notes.

This really has been yet another installment of how to sing tied eighth note cut-offs, an issue that seems to plague United States choral conductors and their desire to show every cut off physically in the gesture, not letting the singers just count them from the beats. He, despite the lack of depth that others have noted, did have a very clear conception of the sounds he wanted. One listen to his instrumental music indicates well that he knew what he was doing.

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