He attended Harvard University, became assistant professor of music and choir director at Wellesley College, and received a doctorate in music from the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. He went on to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music, at the University of Virginia from 1941 to 1946, and at Harvard. He is particularly noted for his choral works. He was an honorary member of the Rho Tau chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at Appalachian State University.
Thompson composed three symphonies and numerous vocal works including The Testament of Freedom, Frostiana, and The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by Edward Hicks's painting. His most popular and recognizable choral work is his anthem, Alleluia, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. He also wrote the operas Solomon and Balkis and The Nativity According to St. Luke.
Leonard Bernstein was one of Thompson's students at Harvard. His other notable students include Samuel Adler, Leo Kraft, Juan Orrego-Salas, John Davison, Thomas Beveridge, Charles Edward Hamm, William P. Perry, Christopher King, Frederic Rzewski, and David Borden.
In honor of Thompson's vast influence on male choral music, on May 2, 1964 he became the first recipient of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Established in 1964, this award sought "to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression." He was also a recipient of Yale University's Sanford Medal.
- The Last Invocation - 1922
- Odes of Horace - 1924
- The Peaceable Kingdom - 1936 - inspired by the painting by Edward Hicks and based on texts chosen from Isaiah
- Alleluia - 1940
- The Testament of Freedom - 1943 - texts from Thomas Jefferson
- The Last Words of David - 1949
- Mass of the Holy Spirit - 1955
- Ode to the Virginian Voyage - 1956
- Glory to God in the Highest - 1958
- The Gate of Heaven - 1959 - dedicated to Stephen Tuttle and commissioned by Arthur S. Talmadge for the dedication of DuPont Chapel at Hollins College
- Frostiana: Seven Country Songs - 1959 - a setting of poems by Robert Frost
- The Best of Rooms - 1963 - based on text by Robert Herrick
- A Feast of Praise - 1963 - based on biblical texts
- Place of the Blest - 1968 - based on texts by Robert Herrick and Richard Wilbur
- Bitter-Sweet - 1970
- The Twelve Canticles - 1983 - Thompson's last composition - Dedicated to the Emory & Henry College Concert Choir - Based on eleven of Thompson's favorite passages from the Bible
- The Passion According to St. Luke
- The Nativity According to St. Luke
- Velvet Shoes
- Symphony No. 1 - 1931
- Symphony No. 2 - 1931
- Symphony No. 3 - 1947-49
- Quartet no. 1 in D minor
- Quartet no. 2 in G major (1967)
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