Music: Red, White and Blue Boulevardier

Composer Virgil Thomson turns a hale and peppery 85

The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American, and then write any kind of music you wish.

—Virgil Thomson

As a child in Kansas City, Mo., he banged out his first compositions at the piano, with the sustaining pedal down and the dynamic level up. Years later, an American sophisticate in Paris, he collaborated on an opera with Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts, fashioning deceptively simple, homey music out of "Pigeons on the grass alas." His...

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