American composer Randall Thompson, best known for his choral Alleluia, was born Ira Randall Thompson in New York City. Thompson's father was an English teacher, and he was reared in an environment that emphasized excellence in matters of academics. One refuge from this routine was the family's summer vacation home in Vienna, ME, where Thompson took interest in an old parlor reed organ. At this instrument Thompson wrote his earliest musical works around 1915. In 1916, Thompson entered Harvard University where he applied for membership in the Glee Club, but was rejected. Thompson would spend much of his future career composing choral music, which he once stated was "an attempt to strike back" at the forces that turned him away. At Harvard, Thompson studied with Edward Burlingame Hill, among others.
In 1922 Thompson won a scholarship to the American Academy at Rome, where his studied with Gian Francesco Malipiero, who helped deepen Thompson's interest in the polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance. Back in America by the end of the 1920s, Thompson utilized a Guggenheim Foundation grant to examine the state of college level music education in America. The results were published in book form as College Music, a text that helped reset the collegiate agenda in music education nationwide. In 1936 Thompson's cantata The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by the work of American primitive painter Edward Hicks, was premiered in Cambridge and helped establish Thompson's popularity as a composer.
No work of Thompson's, however, earned in equal measure the incredible celebrity accorded to his Alleluia (1940). It was written in four days at the request of maestro Sergey Koussevitzky for a work to celebrate the opening of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. It was an immediate success and has been performed countless times by choruses large and small, professional and amateur. Among Thompson's other well-known choral works are his The Testament of Freedom (1943) based on texts of Thomas Jefferson and Frostiana (1959) on the texts of poet Robert Frost.
Thompson was also a significant American symphonist, producing three symphonies that are of high quality. Thompson's Symphony No. 2 (1931) had a strong advocate in a student from the Curtis Institute, Leonard Bernstein, who made his first appearance as conductor when he led the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra through this work on July 12, 1939; Bernstein later recorded it with the New York Philharmonic in 1968. Thompson also produced a small amount of chamber and piano music and one short opera, Solomon and Balkis (1942). Thompson's career as an educator was substantive, as in addition to acting as head of Curtis he held professorships at Wellesley, University of California in Berkeley, University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Princeton, and finally Harvard itself, from whence he retired from teaching in 1965. He continued to compose until long afterward, and was still writing music up to within a few months of his death at the age of 85.