The Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award: A Questionable Practice

The Responsibility of Music Critics

In March of 1925, after hearing a performance of Germaine Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto, the composer-critic Deems Taylor wrote for The World, “One thing is certain, after beholding Mlle Tailleferre last night and remembering the portraits of the rest of the Six, whatever the talents of the others, she is decidedly the best looking.” For Taylor, Tailleferre’s beauty was more important to him than the music he actually heard. Evidently, Tailleferre was a foreign, French, female spectacle to behold in the concert hall.


I recently used Taylor’s aforementioned quote for a paper on the detrimental effects of music critics from the 1910s and 1920s on Tailleferre’s career. Among other methods, critics like Taylor chose to describe Tailleferre’s appearance instead of her music, thereby relegating her to a limited compositional niche based on an aesthetic of pleasure. In so doing, the critics perniciously affected Tailleferre’s future reception.


Thus, learning about The ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson* Awards today on the internet came as a surprise to me. Why would the ASCAP award writers with a distinguishment bearing a man’s name who obviously held a misogynistic stance? The organization would probably point to Taylor’s revered status both as a music critic—for The World from 1921-25—and as a composer (in 1927, he became the first recipient of a Met opera commission). Furthermore, the online summary for James Pegolotti’s biography on Taylor praises his ability to “introduce classical music to millions of Americans across the nation” in an “informative but unpatronizing manner” (myself included: Taylor was the baritone-voiced, tuxedo-clad man who introduced Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra in Disney’s Fantasia).


I question how a critic who wrote what he did about a woman composer could be called an “unpatronizing” writer without it being tongue-in-cheek. I wonder if the biography addresses the prejudice evident in his criticism. Moreover, was Taylor’s review of Tailleferre a singular occurrence or was it a practice of his to judge female composers using an aesthetic of visual pleasure (of course there weren’t many female composers for him to review in the first place—the glass ceiling hovering over women composers’ heads was still too high to breach).


Back to the award. Although Taylor was the president of the association presenting the accolade (a tension not easily overcome), what can be interpreted by attaching honor and respect to his work—even when it includes the aforementioned review? Do recipients of the award know about Taylor’s treatment of Tailleferre’s work based upon gendered-terms, a practice clearly harmful to the reception of her music?


I don’t believe the Taylor award can be justified by his alleged positive contributions to music criticism and composition alone. If, upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that Taylor repeatedly treated women composers with prejudiced, harmful language in his criticisms, then I believe the ASCAP should look elsewhere for an honorary name for the award (and there are many astute, socially-responsible, modern-day music critics they can look towards, such as Anne Midgette, Alex Ross, and Anthony Tommasini, among others).


To criticize a work upon valid, justified grounds is the work of a respected, responsible music critic. To do so upon gendered, misogynistic terms is a failing on the part of the critic and—as such—that critic (Taylor) should not bear an honorific title.


* Thomson, Taylor’s partner-in-crime on the award’s title, has been scrutinized for alleged racist viewpoints, in particular in reference to the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, for which he deliberately chose an all-black cast. See Tommasini’s biography, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, for more on the issue.