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The Virgil Thomson Papers

Call Number: MSS 29, MSS 29A

Scope and Contents

The Virgil Thomson Papers contain the manuscript scores and sketches of Thomson's musical compositions, including music for 3 operas, 7 films, and other major compositions and smaller pieces. The Papers also hold printed copies of books and music by Thomson. The correspondence is voluminous and contains letters to and from many important American and French cultural figures since 1920: composers, musicians, artists, authors, and theatrical personalities. Thomson's life and work are further documented by: writings by and about Thomson; photographs; family and personal documents; financial records; private recordings; and other materials.


  • 1804-1990 (inclusive)


Language of Materials

Materials chiefly in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to researchers by appointment. There are no restricted materials in the collection. Please contact the Special Collections staff to schedule an appointment. Some of the materials may be stored at the Library's off-campus shelving facility, so researchers should allow at least two business days to have the appropriate boxes paged.

Conditions Governing Use

The Papers of Virgil Thomson are the physical property of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University. Copyrights belong to the composers and authors, or their legal heirs and assigns.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The first part of the Virgil Thomson Papers, MSS 29, was acquired from Thomson between 1978 and 1984. The second part, MSS 29A, was a gift from the Thomson estate in 1990.


The Virgil Thomson Papers comprise two parts: MSS 29 and MSS 29A. MSS 29 is in 9 series as follows: I. Music by Virgil Thomson. II. Books by or about Virgil Thomson. III. Correspondence. IV. Genealogy. V. Financial records. VI. Photographs. VII. Preservation (correspondence and genealogy). VIII. Miscellaneous. IX. Sound recordings. MSS 29A is in 11 series as follows: I. Music by Virgil Thomson. II. Music by Others. III. Writings by Virgil Thomson. IV. Correspondence. V. Programs. VI. Photographs. VII. Abouts. VIII. Diaries and Address Books. IX. Financial and Legal. X. Honors, Awards, and Academic Regalia. XI. Miscellaneous Items.

Associated Material

Virgil Thomson had personal or professional ties with many prominent persons, so he is well represented in numerous archival collections. Several of the most important of these are available at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, including: the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers (YCAL MSS 76), the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Collection (YCAL MSS 77), the Virgil Thomson Papers Relating to Gertrude Stein (Za Thomson; Uncat ZA MS 153), the Christopher Cox Papers (YCAL MSS 264), and the Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers (YCAL MSS 20). Gertrude Stein was Thomson's librettist for Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. Christopher Cox was Thomson's secretary/assistant from 1975 to 1977. Florine Stettheimer designed the sets and costumes for Four Saints in Three Acts.


183 Linear Feet (394 boxes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Music, correspondence and other papers, photographs, and additional materials by and about the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)

Biographical / Historical

Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 25, 1896. As a boy, he took lessons in piano and organ, and soon found work as a church organist. He attended public schools and then Kansas City Polytechnic Institute, a junior college. In 1917 he enlisted in the Army, but World War I came to an end before he could be sent to Europe.

After his discharge from the military, Thomson attended Harvard, where he sang in the Glee Club and studied with Edward Burlingame Hill and Archibald Davison. His college career was interrupted by a fellowship that enabled him to spend a year in Paris, where he studied counterpoint and organ with Nadia Boulanger, and became a lifelong Francophile. After his Harvard graduation in 1923 and some additional training at the Juilliard School, Thomson moved to Paris, where he befriended many prominent musicians, artists, and writers, including his fellow expatriate Gertrude Stein. She provided the libretto for Thomson's first opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which created a sensation when it was first performed in 1934. Although it never entered the standard repertory, Four Saints made Thomson a celebrity, and it remains his best-known work to this day.

In the spring of 1940 the German invasion compelled Thomson to leave France. He settled in Manhattan, renting an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel that would remain his home until his death nearly six decades later. From 1940 to 1954, Thomson was a staff writer for New York Herald Tribune. His unconventional opinions, elegantly clear prose, and devastating wit made him the most admired music critic in America, and he was often compared to earlier composer-critics such as Berlioz and Debussy.

Thomson continued to compose throughout his years at the Herald Tribune and after. In 1947 he produced a second opera, The Mother of Us All, again to a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Thomson wrote his last opera, Lord Byron (libretto by Jack Larson) in response to a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, but it received its first performance at the Juilliard School, in 1972. Thomson composed in many other genres, ranging from symphonies and film scores to songs and choral works. He was also known for his musical "portraits"--short works inspired by specific persons and rapidly sketched in their presence.

Thomson received many awards, including the 1949 Pulitzer Prize (for his film score Louisiana Story), the Kennedy Center Honors, the French Légion d'honneur, and at least nineteen honorary doctorates.

Virgil Thomson died in New York on September 30, 1989.

Register to The Virgil Thomson Papers
Edited Full Draft
Compiled by Jay Rozen, Benjamin J. Outenand and Adrienne Scholtz1985, 1996
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared According To Local Music Library Descriptive Practices
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Gilmore Music Library Repository

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