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Randall Thompson

Randall ThompsonRANDALL THOMPSON (1899 – 1984) was an American composer who achieved extraordinary success not only as the nation’s pre-eminent composer of choral music but also as a highly respected educator who was instrumental in establishing the great choral masterpieces as standard repertoire for college and university choruses. Although his family was musical, young Thompson was not encouraged to take up music as a profession. But, as a student at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where his father was an English teacher, he was engaged as a school organist. He entered Harvard University at the age of 17 and promptly failed the audition for the Harvard Glee Club. Not willing to let such a setback deter him, he eventually gained entry to the chorus and even became a protégé of Archibald T. Davison, the conductor.

After graduating from Harvard, Mr. Thompson continued his education at the American Academy in Rome, where he began a lifelong appreciation of the Italian people, their music and their language. (The feeling would be reciprocated in 1959, when he was conferred the title Cavaliere Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana.) After three years in Italy, Mr. Thompson returned to the U.S. to pursue a career in both composition and teaching. He became assistant professor of music and choir director at Wellesley College and received a doctorate in music from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He went on to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, at the University of Virginia and at Harvard, where some of his noted students included Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Adler. (Bernstein paid homage to his former professor by recording Mr. Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 in 1968.) Mr. Thompson did extensive work in choral pedagogy, including the publication of a seminal study he conducted in 1935 that led to a nationwide revolution in the teaching of music on college campuses.

Mr. Thompson exhibited great diversity in his compositions, which included operatic, piano, sacred anthem and symphonic works. His first composition was a piano sonata, composed before entering Harvard. But it is his choral work for which Mr. Thompson is most noted, with Alleluia as one of the most well known. Frostiana was a collaboration between Mr. Thompson and the poet Robert Frost and commissioned by the city of Amherst, Mass., in 1958 to celebrate the city’s 200th anniversary. The Testament of Freedom was written for the Virginia Glee Club while Mr. Thompson was teaching at the University of Virginia and was meant to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson; consequently, the text for the work was taken from Jefferson's writings.

In honor of Mr. Thompson’s vast influence on male choral music, he was selected as the first recipient of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Established in 1964, this award sought “to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression.” He was also a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.

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