Virgil Thomson: A Prayer to Saint Catherine

I just discovered this piece which dates to 1959, I believe.  It was serendipity that brought it to me.  Today’s my birthday and as fate would have it, I have a bout of bronchitis.  To sweat it out, I went with my wife (who took the day off) to a Korean spa outside Washington, DC.  While resting after a steam bath, I came across an article in Opera News about a new opera called “27,” which is about Gertrude Stein when she lived at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, between the first and second world wars.  She became one of the focal points of the “Lost Generation,” and and hobnobbed with artists, writers, composers and the like.  Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, Copland and Thomson.

That article reminded me of her collaboration with Virgil Thomson on an opera called “Four Saints in Three Acts” composed in 1934.  I’d never heard the opera, though I’d known of it from friends whom I met at the French house in 1975. I looked up the opera on Youtube and came across an interview from the 1970s with Virgil Thomson, which I include below. He lived to the ripe old age of 96 years and as this interview shows, he was quite a character.

And youtube also delivered up today’s piece, “A Prayer to Saint Catherine.” I thought it was from the opera, but it turns out he set the words of a poem by Kenneth Koch to music. When I heard it, I about fell off my chair laughing so hard. It’s tender and witty and sly and clever and in the end so human. Tell me what you think about it.

A Prayer to Saint Catherine
Kenneth Koch

If I am to be preserved from heartache
and shyness
By Saint Catherine of Siena,
I am praying to her that she will hear my
And treat me in every way with kindness.

I went to Siena to Saint Catherine’s
own church
(It is impossible to deny this)
To pray to her to cure me of my heartache
and shyness,
Which she can do, because she is a
great saint.

Other saints would regard my prayer as foolish.
Saint Nicolas, for example.
He would chuckle,
“God helps those who help themselves,
Rouse yourself!
Get out there and do something about it!”

Or Saint Joanna. She would say, “It is
not shyness
That bothers you. It is sin.
Pray to Catherine of Siena.” But that is
what I have done.
And that is why I have come here to cure
my heartache.

Saint Catherine of Siena,
If this song pleases you, then be good
enough to answer the prayer it contains.
Make the person that sings this song less
shy than that person is,
And give that person some joy in that
person’s heart.

Interview with Thomson



About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

4 Responses to Virgil Thomson: A Prayer to Saint Catherine

  1. Willy Nilly says:

    Happy Birthday, Kurt! Enjoyed this post very much and wishing you a return to good health quickly. Hopefully, the Koreans were able to cure you just in time. I know they kept me going for many years.


  2. Gallivanta says:

    Fascinating interview.


  3. Gallivanta says:

    and Happy Birthday.


  4. I accompanied a friend in college in this song. It is one of my favorites, as I’m an introvert myself and identify with this song.

    Liked by 1 person

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