Composer Edward Thomas spent his early musical life in the 1950s performing as a guitarist and ensemble singer appearing on various network television programs. He made a name for himself writing catchy jingles, and after studying with Tibor Serly, wrote many works including chamber music, symphonies, operas, and musicals. He spoke with Lyndsay Werking, ACO’s Director of Development, recently about his life in music.
Lyndsay Werking (LW): You served on ACO’s board of directors for a number of years. What drew you to our work?
Edward Thomas (ET): I found that the idea of ACO was a wonderful idea. I wanted to give young composers a chance to have their work performed by world class musicians. As a composer myself, I often joke, this is a very easy business in a very tough world. When a young composer has a chance to be put on the map, it’s a wonderful thing.
LW: I was looking at your website recently and saw images from a rehearsal that was being led by George Manahan, ACO’s Music Director Laureate. Can you tell me about that?
ET: That was for the professional recording of Desire Under the Elms with London Symphony in the early 2000’s – the stage premiere took place in 1989 at City Center. I met George before working with ACO.
When I first started the opera, I was looking for someone to do the libretto. I opened the Broadway pages and saw that Cabaret was playing. I called the book writer, Joe Masteroff, out of the blue. After sharing some of my ideas with him, we met in a room with one singer and a pianist, I showed him some early sketches, and we decided to work together. It took us close to seven years to get the work completed. We wrote everything by hand in those days.
When I was 69, I was buying some scores in a music store. The clerk asked me what I do. I said, “Well, I compose.” He asked me how I compose. I told him I take a pencil, eraser, and paper like everybody. He responded, “You write by hand?!”
He then asked me if I had ever heard of a computer. So, I started taking lessons to write music by computer. I can’t believe what it can do. I’m not doing a lot these days, but I did write my opera Anna Christie using the computer, which premiered in 2018 with Encompass New Opera Theatre, and was released in 2019 on the Broadway Records label.
In the end, it’s the doing. One does what one does because one needs to do that thing perpetually.
LW: You wrote a lot of jingles in your early years. Can you tell me about that?
ET: One has to find a way to function and survive. We all need an income, so I started writing jingles. For TV, they asked us to write 58 seconds, and for radio, it was 60 seconds max. The one that put me on the map was a grape juice. It went like this:
Welchade, it’s Welchade.
Great ideas and soft drinks.
Welchade, it’s Welchade.
Great ideas and soft drinks.
I never knew how much money could be made in residuals until that and other jingles took off.
LW: Tell me more about you started writing chamber music, symphonies, and your dramatic works.
ET: In between writing jingles, I wanted to study orchestration. A friend recommended I call Tibor Serly, who came to America around the same time as Bela Bartok.
I used to play guitar to make a living. I practiced 3 hours a day. One expects a rhythm guitar player to know their chord symbols, which I did. When I first met Tibor Serly, he asked, “Now, tell me Mr. Thomas, what do you know about harmony?”
Thinking on my guitar chord, I responded, “Well, Mr. Surly, I believe I know all there is to know about harmony.”
In response, he opened a Bartok score and started smacking the pages asking me what different elements and moments meant. I left feeling very humbled. He eventually accepted me as a student, but I had to take a 3-month basic harmony class two times before he would work on orchestration with me. After two years, I had written a symphony work, Impressions for Orchestra. Tibor had a friend at the Vienna Philharmonic. He made arrangements to have it recorded. When I stood at the podium, I froze and Tibor had to step in and finish conducting for me.
LW: Do you have any daily rituals – creative or otherwise – that you maintain?
ET: I have to nap a couple of times during the day, at my age. Some months ago, I started something new with “Desiderata,” an early 1920s prose poem by Max Ehrmann. I came across this 40 years ago. I memorized it because it is so powerful and has so much to say. It was written in 1927 – only three years after my birth. When I put the light out at night, I recite the words in my head, which helps me fall asleep.
Desiderata GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. By Max Ehrmann © 1927 Original text