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The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation.

The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation.

Edited by Susan Holbrook and Thomas Dilworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. [xii, 336 p. ISBN 978-0-19-538663-9. $49.95]

This welcome volume presents the edited correspondence between writer Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson, documenting their artistic collaborations from the years 1926 to 1946. While the bulk of the volume is comprised of the annotated letters, there is a lengthy introduction, a helpful epilogue, and five appendices. The appendices present useful supplementary material: Appendix A is a short biographical sketch of Thomson by Georges Hugnet written in 1930; Appendix B is a musical sketch of Stein by Thomson composed in 1928; Appendix C is a short biographical sketch of Stein by Thomson written in 1930; Appendix D is a biographical sketch of Stein by Hugnet, also from 1930; and Appendix E presents the text of the original contract for Four Saints in Three Acts.

One of the best-known and most fascinating artistic collaborations of the twentieth century was that of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. While Stein in the mid-1920s was already a controversial and important author, Thomson was just at the beginning of his illustrious career as a composer. Holbrook and Dilworth lay out the necessary background for the inception of this collaboration in their thorough introduction. Among the most important of the background elements for Stein and Thomson was the fact that they were both Americans living in voluntary exile in Paris during the 1920s, in order to work on their art away from the artistic backwardness of the United States. As Stein wrote: "It was not what Paris gave to you but what it did not take away from you which was important" (p.5). Overall, the introduction provides a clearly presented summary of the context for the letters that follow. We are introduced to Stein's and Thomson's associates who will figure as characters in the letters, and the editors also provide a sketch of the chronology of their two operatic collaborations in order to fill in contextual details not directly covered in the correspondence. Finally, the introduction outlines the principles employed in editing the letters. The methodology is straightforward: editorial emendations are indicated either by square brackets or in italic text. Spelling and punctuation are retained from the original, for the most part, and crossed-out text is reproduced where it can be deciphered. An important result of the editors' efforts is that they are able to accurately place all but three of the undated letters into a correct chronology, which resolves the problem of inaccuracies in earlier scholarship.

The Stein-Thomson letters are thus presented in chronological order. Each letter includes annotations about the letterhead used, all dates and greetings, as well as the signature and any postscript text. Nearly all of the letters are followed by annotations by the editors. These are cued to a word or phrase in the text of the letter by boldface type. I found these annotations among the most helpful of this type that I have seen, anticipating almost everything that the reader might wonder about regarding the content of the letter. All persons mentioned are identified at their first appearance, and are listed in the index. Events mentioned in the text are explicated, and, of course, editorial decisions are presented where necessary.

Until the point of their falling out in January of 1931, the letters between Stein and Thomson are full of easy camaraderie and details of life in artistic Paris during the late 1920s. This period covers about two-thirds of the correspondence. After that point, the friendly tone of the letters drops significantly for a time and many of Stein's letters to Thomson are from either Alice Toklas, her companion, or William Bradley, her agent. During this period, these are primarily business letters, concerned with the terms of the contract for Four Saints between Stein and Thomson: the sharing of expenses and royalties; details of potential performances and publication of the score, and reports of performances. This was still a source of ongoing friction even after they revived their friendship early in 1933. However, the revival of contact resulted in a flurry of activity around the premiere of Four Saints in February 1934. The correspondence then gradually diminished to a handful of letters each year on each side up to the beginning of the Second World War. After a few years of silence during the war, when Thomson had moved back to New York and Stein lived in the French Alps, protected from the Nazis by her friend Bernard Fay, the head of the Bibliotheque Nationale, the correspondence was revived as they made plans for their second operatic collaboration, The Mother of Us All. Stein had already finished the libretto, but the music had not been completed by the time of her death in July 1946.

The epilogue recounts, mainly in a text written by the editors, Thomson's dealings with Toklas between Stein's death and her own in 1967. In the early years, their correspondence was mainly on business matters related to the operas. Thomson visited her when he was in France, sent her gifts and supplies hard to find in France, and was able to remain on good terms with her, despite their earlier difficulties.

I noted only one significant oversight in the volume. In Thomson's letter to Stein from [late June 1929] (p.122-23), he writes, "am leaving Thursday for the midi," which the editors mistranslate as "noon" in their notes to this letter (p.123), when Thomson is clearly referring to the French region. There were fewer than five inconsequential typographical errors also noted.

This collection is an excellent contribution to the history of American music in the twentieth century. The collaboration between Stein and Thomson resulted in one of the major American operatic works of the century in Four Saints in Three Acts, as well as in their second work, The Mother of Us All. Unlike many twentieth-century operas, these works have received a steady rate of performances and are accessible to many not otherwise interested in opera. The volume should be welcome in almost any library, large or small.

Ron Wiecki

University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Author:Wiecki, Ron
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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