The first line of Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” is made of three consonants and one vowel sound: “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.” The musical phrase to which Virgil Thomson set this line in 1926, thirteen years after Stein wrote it, consists of two notes, C and E flat: after five terse repetitions of the word “sweet” on C, the singer jumps up a minor third to E flat on “tea.” Then the piano enters with a C minor triad. As the song continues, Thomson’s commitment to the simplest harmonic vocabulary hardly wavers: the C minor triad is followed by a C minor scale, played in parallel sevenths, and from then on the accompaniment alternates between triads and scales.
Stein’s readers have long debated the meaning of “Susie Asado,” but Thomson admitted that he was attracted to Stein’s writing precisely because he didn’t know what it meant. Treating the text as pure sound, Thomson makes it feel paradoxically more purposeful, more meaningful in the musical setting than it feels on the page. As Aaron Copland said of Stein and Thomson’s celebrated opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), Thomson’s music “draws a frame” around Stein’s language, the frame consisting of egregiously basic musical gestures.
Since the Renaissance, triads and scales have been the basic building blocks of tonal music—music we can describe as being in a key, such as C minor. When early-twentieth-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg set out to write music not in a key, allowing us to experience dissonance as something that wouldn’t require resolution, the basic building blocks of tonal music needed to be shunned. But while Thomson foregrounds triads and scales relentlessly in “Susie Asado,” as if to suggest a rousing reinvigoration of tonal practice, his repetition of these building blocks never establishes a strong sense of a key; because there’s nothing in tension with them, there’s nothing at stake in returning to them. Like other American artists who embraced a disarming simplicity of means (such as Stein), Thomson made familiar artistic gestures seem provocatively strange, and it’s misleading to think of him as someone who reacted against the groundbreaking complexities of musical modernism. Thomson was investigating the range of possibilities inherent in his medium—the medium being, in this case, the notes of the diatonic scale.
For a long time that was hard for some people to hear. Compared with T.S. Eliot’s poems, which foreground their learned complexities, Stein could seem uninvolved in the great dilemmas of modern culture, and Thomson’s music could seem similarly to shun the big questions. The philosopher Theodor Adorno championed Schoenberg’s music because of “the expression of suffering and the pleasure taken in dissonance,” a pleasure that was “inextricably interwoven in authentic works of art in the modern age.” By this standard, even Igor Stravinsky, whom Adorno dismissed as “the yea-sayer of music,” seemed insufficiently serious. In such a climate of taste, a climate that equated anxiety and complexity with authenticity, Thomson’s music was doomed to seem quaint. With the rise in the 1960s of the musical minimalism associated with composers such as Steve Reich, Thomson began to seem more hip. But this version of postmodernism already appears as blinkered as Adorno’s polemical modernism, as Thomson’s best music does not.