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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Virgil’s Thomson’s scores for the two American documentary films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (evoking the American ‘Dust Bowl’) and The River (making a spectacular case for flood control), are among the most deservedly famous in film history, and this is the first time they have been recorded in their entirely. Each is constructed in a series of musical vignettes, quoting cowboy songs, popular and patriotic melodies, nursery tunes, folk music and even jazz; but composed music also intervenes to create atmosphere and accompanies the final scenes and are presented here in sequence, rather than seamlessly, very well played and recorded. Excellent notes too.



Chris Mullins
Opera Today, May 2008

Naxos’s DVD division has already released the performances on this disc of Virgil Thomson’s scores for The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, as soundtracks for a re-release of the original films. That DVD (Naxos 2.110521) contained, as bonus tracks, the original musical performances. The additional investment for the DVD seems minor, considering the historical value of the films themselves and the other additional material (interviews with film participants and some comments from Thomson himself).

However, for the extremely budget-minded or those only interested in the audio experience, these performances by the Post-Classical Ensemble, led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, merit a strong recommendation.

Naxos’s booklet essay, in the typical tiny font, has a fine essay on the composition of the scores as well as a track-by-track synopsis tying the music to scenes from each of the films. Joseph Horowitz, director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, composed the notes.

Again, the DVD offers a richer experience, but those who desire the convenience of the CD format will be grateful for this release.



Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Pare Lorentz’s documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, are considered to be some of the best ever made. Dismissed by some as government propaganda they draw their strength from the filmmaker’s unwavering support for Roosevelt’s New Deal and the belief that farmers in the drought-stricken ‘dust bowls’ were entitled to federal support. Commissioned by the US Government the films highlight the very real dangers of farming in the Great Plains—then in the grip of a terrible drought—and the need for flood prevention along the Mississippi.

Thanks to Naxos and Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble we now have Thomson’s complete scores on CD at last. Yes, there is something of the plain-spoken style one associates with Copland—who admired The Plow for its ‘frankness and openness of feeling’—but the ‘voice’ is unmistakably his own.

And despite the biblical proportions of this tragedy Thomson eschews the epic approach in favour of something much plainer, more intimate. The gentle Pastorale (Grass) certainly recalls Copland at his open-hearted best. This is a vision of Eden, of grasslands as yet unspoilt, and Thomson manages to suggest both this happy state and a sense of wide open spaces with a remarkable economy of style. Beneath the music’s often naïve charm the timps beat, portents of the destruction to come, yet for all that Thomson never allows the music to become portentous. Indeed, Lorentz’s script may seem a little too poetic for modern ears but there is no doubting the filmmaker’s sincerity, a quality that Thomson complements so well.

Some of the most winning music in this score can be found in the dance-like rhythms of Cattle. There’s no crude musical onomatopoeia—though there is a Grofé-like imitation of hooves at one point—and in The Homesteaders Thomson mixes the martial trumpets and drums with snatches of banjo and catchy folk tunes. There is a sense of ease and contentment here which—to use a Hollywood analogy—is more George Stevens than John Ford or Howard Hawks. But even though this is not a hard landscape the timps remind us that with no rivers and little rainfall the settlers farm here ‘at their peril’.

The repeated trumpet calls and jaunty march rhythms of Warning and War and the Tractor are a reminder of conflicts past and present, not to mention the advancing legions of machines that ‘break’ the land. Judicious as always Thomson never resorts to musical histrionics, even at moments of high drama; just sample the wistful, bluesy sax in Speculation, whose growing dissonance dissolves into the strange empty harmonies of Drought. This pared-down approach is equally effective in Wind and Dust, with its swirling figures and distressed trumpets.

The earlier folk-like melodies resurface in Devastation but this time there is a hollow ring to the once reassuring tunes. Lorentz’s script is bleak indeed, describing the farmers and their families fleeing the dust bowls, with ‘no place to go and no place to stop’. This almost biblical exodus was to dominate John Ford’s equally bleak 1940 film of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Not surprisingly both films have been deposited in the US National Film Archive.

Lorentz made The River a year later, in 1937. The film, which showcases the dam-building and flood-prevention efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a much simpler, more direct narrative. That said, Thomson provides a stream of good tunes, with a thrusting Prelude and some lovely solo writing in First Forest and A Big River, depicting the mighty Mississippi. The music has an easy flow to it, the timps this time underlining the steady building work on the dams and levées.

The film doesn’t seem to have the dramatic subtext of The Plow, and Thomson’s approach here is best described as straight pictorialism. That said, he has an Ivesian knack for quoting popular tunes that would surely resonate with US audiences of the time. Sample the rollicking Cotton Pickers with its evocative banjo melody and distant trumpets, the latter a reference to the Civil War. And then there’s that sad little melody of the old plantations in Ruins.

In keeping with the film’s spirit of public information Logging and Coal offer an opportunity to trumpet the virtues of enterprise and hard work, essential to getting America back on its feet. Thomson uses snare drums to remarkable effect, depicting rafts of logs rolling down the river. He also quotes the jaunty tune ‘There’ll Be A Hot Time in Town Tonight’, very much as Ives might have done.

Yet even this simple narrative has a sting in the tail, with disaster in the form of Flooding. That Mississippi solo we heard earlier now sounds mournfully over a pulsing drum, a marvellous evocation of a drowned landscape. The futile efforts to hold back the waters are depicted in repeated, pounding rhythms, the skeletal unison writing of Requiem a grim postlude.

Unlike the first film The River ends on a more positive note, the waters finally ‘locked and dammed’. Thomson reflects this new optimism in music that flows freely and broadens into a simple yet spacious climax. This isn’t as much of a ‘melodrama of nature’ as The Plow, but at worst Thomson’s music is robust and workmanlike, at best highly accomplished and very evocative.

These films are now available on DVD (Naxos 2.110521) with an up-to-date soundtrack by the Post-Classical Ensemble. I have to say hearing this score has tempted me to go out and buy a copy. But if you just want the music—this disc is as authoritative as it gets. With a warm, detailed recording and informative notes by Joseph Horowitz this is a very desirable issue indeed.




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, December 2007

This disc is released in conjunction with Naxos’ issue on DVD of the original documentary films for which Virgil Thomson wrote these two scores. Thomson’s plain-spoken, unsentimental sort of homely Americana makes a perfect counterpoint to the visual imagery, and while the complete scores in both cases are about twice as long as the more familiar suites, they make satisfying listening as they stand on account of the predominance of satisfying musical shapes and the basic homogeneity of Thomson’s idiom. Certainly, it’s worth having the opportunity to hear them as he originally wrote them.

The only reservation I have about these performances is that the playing of the Post-Classical Ensemble (whatever that means) sounds a bit too careful. Thomson doesn’t give them many opportunities to show off, but movements such as “Blues” from The Plow that Broke the Plains could have had a sharper profile and a touch more sass. The recording also captures a large amount of extraneous noise, including some pretty horrendous squeaks from the guitarist early on in the same work. Happily it doesn’t last for long, and the remainder of the program is much better. For film music buffs, this will be self-recommending, as will the DVD.



Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, November 2007

Here, like manna from heaven, is a perfect illustration of the irreplaceability in our world of the disc as cultural object. No download will ever come close to the experience of listening to the budget-priced world premiere recordings of the music and reading the accompanying notes. Nor, frankly, do I think it preferable to hear the music in its original setting as film music, as Naxos has previously offered on DVD (any more, at this stage, than it is better to hear Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” as music for Sergei Eisenstein’s film).

This is some of the most influential symphonic music ever composed in America. In 1936 and 1937, Pare Lorentz made two classic documentary films to, in effect, sell the programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, as part of the era’s very definition of liberalism itself. He then got 40-year-old composer Thomson to write the music for them. (He first hired Thomson for “The Plow That Broke the Plains” when Thomson asked him how much he could pay him, admitting, “I can’t take from any man more than he’s got.”) Aaron Copland himself had admitted they are models of the use of Americana in symphonic music. Copland’s first great music after hearing these scores—his masterpiece “Billy the Kid”—reveals how massive was Thomson’s influence. And Copland’s influence, in turn, has been decisive for the past 70 years (you can STILL hear it in American symphonic and film music).

Here, for the first time on record or disc, are brilliant performances of the complete scores of this determining music. And that makes this low-priced disc something of a major event. The performing group is Washington, D.C.’s edgy and exceptional Post-Classical Ensemble (Joseph Horowitz, one of the smartest historians and critics extant of American music is its artistic director and the disc’s annotator). The performances aren’t coldly flawless and pristine, but they are so clear, so athletic and so well-recorded that they seem, themselves, models of how to play this music.

And what is this music? A phenomenally witty and tender and wistful and riotous farrago of themes from the American musical unconscious—Reveille, “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “Oh! Susannah,” “The Mademoiselle from Armentiere (Inky, Dinky Parlez-Vous)” etc. And all of them are mixed with Thomson’s own melodic and masterly settings. This is American symphonic modernism at its folksiest and most appealing. Nor, by the way, does it become stale on repeated hearings.

It’s so complete, in fact, that it even includes passages not heard in Lorentz’s original films.

Horowitz’s notes to the disc are close to exemplary (even better on Naxos’ DVD). The only thing missing is a list of all the musical sources blended into the ingenious musical phantasmagoria. This is a great recording moment.



Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, October 2007

The Naxos DVD of Pare Lorentz’s classic documentary films The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River (see the newsletter of 16 January 2007) was so well received that they now gives us a CD devoted just to Virgil Thomson’s (1896–1989) scores for them. Anyone interested in American music must have this, and that includes those who got the DVD, because there are cues here that never made it into the films.

This is the most extensive version of these scores ever recorded, and even contains some tidbits that aren’t on the supposedly complete recording conductor Richard Kapp did for Essay almost twenty years ago. They’re not only considered some of Thomson’s finest music, but two of the best film scores ever written for the silver screen. Thomson, who studied at Harvard, and then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, had the ability to write as well as orchestrate music with a clarity and simplicity that made it immediately appealing and meaningful. For the Lorentz films he used this talent along with a variety of folk and hymn tunes to create an entirely new kind of American music. Eclectic, down-to-earth and at times even humorous, his creations had such a uniquely compelling sound that they greatly influenced what would later come from other American composers, particularly Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. While the finer points of Thomson’s exquisite scoring were never that apparent on the original film soundtracks, which date from the 1930s, they certainly come through on this modern day CD.

Not only that, but the music becomes an entity unto itself with a meaning all of its own thanks to the loving attention lavished on it by up-and-coming conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez…and his spunky Post-Classical Ensemble. Known in the Washington, D.C. area for their imaginative programming and sensitive performances, they really outdo themselves here in spite of some extraneous chirps in The Plow That Broke the Plains “Cattle” cue. Their efforts would undoubtedly have pleased the composer, who was also a formidable music critic. The Plow…(1936) documents the calamities brought about by the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal policies designed to overcome them. The River, which came a year later, tells the story of the mighty Mississippi, it’s disastrous floods, and New Deal efforts to contain as well as prevent them. Thomson considered The Plow…his finest film score. But Gil-Ordóñez makes an exceptionally strong case for The River, by turning it into a highly emotional experience of almost symphonic poem proportions.

This is musical Americana at its best, and the recorded sound is quite good, although one does get the impression that the level was set a bit too high. Incidentally, Thomson fans should be sure to check out a CD featuring his cello concerto along with some pieces by his student and good friend Charles Fussell. They should also read the recommendations above for a couple of concertos by another of Virgil’s students, Ned Rorem, and some very colorful symphonic music by American composer Don Gillis.






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12:14:04 PM, 21 October 2014
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