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Imagine this scenario: the chief music critic of a major New York daily newspaper is a working composer. The critic's compositions are performed by leading orchestras, chamber musicians and singers around the country, sometimes with the composer conducting. When a new composition by this critic is presented in New York, another music critic from the paper reviews it, almost always favorably.

After six years on the job, the critic wins a Pulitzer Prize, not for criticism but for composition. And far from being embarrassed, the editors of the paper boast in print of the critic's accomplishment.Though unthinkable today, this was the situation of Virgil Thomson during his 14 years at the New York Herald Tribune. When he left the paper 40 years ago this fall, his career as composer and performer foundered for a time, and music criticism lost one of its perkiest, most provocative voices.

Even those who devalue Thomson as a composer concede that he may have been the most brilliant music critic the United States has produced. Yet his appointment arose out of a singular set of circumstances that could not be duplicated today.

Composers have long proved excellent critics, Schumann, Berlioz and Debussy among them. In 1924 the editor Minna Lederman inaugurated the quarterly Modern Music, giving living composers a forum in which to write about one another's works.

Thomson became one of Lederman's feistiest and most insightful contributors. Throughout Modern Music's 22 years, its budget and circulation were modest, but its influence was enormous.

Artists and authors continue to critique the work of their colleagues today. Writers write about one another in the New York Review of Books. The director Robert Brustein, who runs the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., writes about theater for the New Republic. John Updike reviews fiction for the New Yorker.

But these journals appear weekly or monthly, and the critics contribute only occasionally.

Newspaper critics cultivate a stance of objectivity, however elusive the goal may be. They strive to assure readers that they are independent observers with no connection to, personal interest in or hidden agenda regarding any artist or institution they cover.

When Thomson was recruited to the Herald Tribune by Geoffrey Parsons in 1940, he was 43, a fully formed composer and a widely read author of articles, essays and reviews, though he had never worked for a daily newspaper.

Thomson always considered the critic's air of impartiality largely fake. Everyone has an agenda, he argued, and you might as well be open about it.

"Andrew Porter is an absolutely first-class critic, but he's a British agent," Thomson said of the former music critic of the New Yorker. He did not object at all to Porter's being a British agent. He simply thought that the New Yorker, of all publications, needed an American agent.

Thomson recounted his own agenda at the Herald Tribune in his 1966 autobiography: "to expose the philanthropic persons in control of our musical institutions for the amateurs they are, to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit makers that indeed they are, and to support with all the power of my praise every artist, composer, group or impresario whose relation to music was straightforward."

He cut through the mounds of publicity that propped up celebrity performers. He debunked the cults surrounding Toscanini, Heifetz, even the revered Marian Anderson.

Most important, he championed music by living composers, especially Americans. He often expressed his displeasure with a typically conservative program ("music by dead Germans") by ignoring the concert completely or sending an assistant to cover it while he took on something more unconventional and interesting: Juilliard students singing Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" in English; Paul Bowles' theater music for "Twelfth Night" on Broadway or, one Easter Sunday, a black preacher in New Jersey who played swing music on electric guitar for his congregation.

Of course, Thomson's reviews were hardly free of mischief or self-interest. Musicians who performed his music - the conductors Eugene Ormandy and Leo-pold Stokowski, the violinist Joseph Fuchs, the harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe - could count on sympathetic coverage. Institutions that ignored him, the Metropolitan Opera chief among them, were held to exacting standards.

But how did he get away with his self-promotion, the clear conflict of interest that arose from his activities as composer and conductor? As he himself explained, his reviews were "accompanied by musical descriptions more precise than those being used just then by other reviewers."