Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All / The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater

Virgil Thomson was a great force behind American music in the 20th Century. Not only was he a great composer, but an outspoken and intelligent voice for music. The Mother of Us All was the second opera he composed. The first, Four Saints in Three Acts, used an all Afro-American cast. The libretto was written by his long time friend, Gertrude Stein. In 1945 Thomson received a commission from the Ditson Fund to compose an opera to be presented at Columbia University. This was The Mother of Us All and again he chose Stein to write the libretto. The opera premiered in 1947, to favorable reviews. Though the opera has hardly been performed by major companies, it has always been admired.

It is a very fine work indeed. It surrounds itself around the life of the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony. There are 26 singers in the opera, most of them being historic figures, including Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, and Ulysses S. Grant. Other singers represent what may be termed the common folk from Indiana Elliot to Chris the Citizen. There are even two narrators who only speak to the audience called Virgil T. and Gertrude S. The work is an interesting musical fusion that well may have come out of Middle America with a crosscurrent of various European influences.

This performance was recorded live in 2013. Steven Osgood conducts with the flair that one would hope for, in a work like this. I find him more refreshing than the previous recording conducted by Raymond Leppard. The singers, most of them widely unknown, are more than up to their roles. Very impressive is Noragh Devlin , a young mezzo who is in full control of her role as Susan B. Her voice is in top form. Other singers including Scott Russell, Alexander Frankel, and Addison Hamilton give breath and life to this unique production.

The recording has been filled out with a suite of music from the opera that Thomson compiled in 1949. Overall, I find this production to be an excellent interpretation of what is an amazing work. The recording, which is on the Albany label, is alive in sound and spacious to the ear. This is a welcome addition to the catalog for American opera enthusiasts and music lovers everywhere.

Album Overview

Long overdue, this recording of Virgil Thomson’s 1947 opera with libretto by Gertrude Stein by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, makes a major American opera available. The opera, commissioned by the Alice A. Ditson Fund, tells the story of Susan B. Anthony, but Stein’s approach mixes real and fictional characters from different historical periods. Premiered at Columbia University, the opera impressed the distinguished audience and press, but neither of New York’s major opera companies took on the work. Thomson’s music, a continuation of his style of making text come alive through natural inflections and sparing instrumental supports, is suggestive of its American theme with fanfares, political songs, Salvation Army-style marches and parlor songs.


Composer: Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989) was an American composer and critic. He was instrumental in the development of the “American Sound” in classical music, and has been described as a modernist, a neoclassicist, a composer of “an Olympian blend of humanity and detachment” and a neoromantic. Later in life, Thomson became a sort of mentor and father figure to a new generation of American tonal composers such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein.

Conductor: Steven Osgood

Steven Osgood, with his unique combination of theatrical and musical background, brings to the podium a musical incisiveness and dramatic insight which is rare in today’s emerging conductors.  He has proven his expertise in repertoire ranging from the Baroque through this century’s most challenging scores, and is quickly becoming a much sought after conductor across North America.

Manhattan School of Music Opera & Orchestra


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