Randall Thompson

February 10, 2006

In the summer of 1980 I worked as an assistant for Randall Thompson, composer, Harvard Professor Emeritus, and dean of American choral composers. He had had a stroke. I helped him with his correspondence, simple bookkeeping, I arranged the Pueri Hebraeorum for SATB, but he told me not to take credit for it. I said: OK. He taught me how to do a quick and dirty retranscription of one kind of choral music to another. I wrote a set of hymns with a distinctive American flavor, and he critiqued them. “R.T.” gave me some 3 LPs of Sacred Harp music which changed my life, turning me into the Americana boy that Uncles Virgil, Aaron, Lenny, Mark, Paul, and Ned, would be so proud of. Actually, R.T. didn’t have much nice to say about “Aaron’s boys club.” He once bragged about helping a scholar escape Hitler who “had Jewish blood.” I looked at him blankly. We got in a tiff over whether this was an issue or not. I remember he had a large white poodle that smelled bad whose name was “Mbark” — well, that’s what it sounded like — a cross between “Mark” and “bark.”

Randall Thompson

The climax of my time with him was accompanying him to a choral festival in Fredonia, New York where he was the featured composer. Part of my job was to make sure he didn’t get lost — a very funny responsibility for someone like me who has a terrible sense of direction. He got lost only once where he was found wandering down some wing of a not-being-used dormitory. I must confess I got lost as well trying to find him.

The assembled chorus was comprised of hundreds of all-star high school choral singers from all over the state of New York. They sang all of RT’s choral music, and the last piece of the concert was, of course, Alleluia, his greatest hit. It sounded great, but the piece went flat: VERY flat. The final last bass note was a B (sic). Most of the basses just emitted air, but one kid nailed it and the final chord, flat as is was, was gorgeous.


American Repertory Singers, Leo Nestor, Director. Arsis 103.

Standing ovation. I take RT down the middle aisle, his hand around my arm. We go up on the stage. He takes his bow. The crowd goes wild. He smiles with great humility and waves.
Afterwards, he is mauled by adoring 13 to 17 year old students who are mostly in tears telling him how his music has changed their lives. He keeps his cool, flashes a big smile that makes everyone love him even more. He had this funny way of deflecting compliments by pointing to the excellent text he chose.

The thrilling experience of seeing how choral music can make a magical tribal connection was unforgettable. Choral music is unlike any other form of music in this way.

On the way back to Boston, I sketched out a treble clef and music paper on the back of my airline ticket sleeve onto which he composed a melody and asked me to harmonize it. I did, and the work is published by ECS Publishing: Boston, (“The Son of God is Singing”).

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