About this Recording
8.559291 - THOMSON, V.: Plow that Broke the Plains (The) / The River (Post-Classical Ensemble, Gil-Ordonez)

Virgil Thomson (1896–1989)
The Plow that Broke the Plains
(1936) • The River (1937)


Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) are landmark American documentary films. Aesthetically, they break new ground in seamlessly marrying pictorial imagery, symphonic music, and poetic free verse, all realized with supreme artistry. Ideologically, they indelibly encapsulate the strivings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

The first film created by the United States Government for commercial release and distribution, The Plow was also – in the words of the film-music historian Neil Lerner – "the most widely publicized attempt by the federal government to communicate to its entire citizenry through a motion picture." It became the first film to be placed in Congressional archives and, following the wishes of FDR, would have become the first film screened at a joint session of Congress had the capitol chambers been equipped to show a sound film.

Virgil Thomson's scores for both films – here recorded in their entirety for the first time since Alexander Smallens conducted the soundtracks – are among the most famous ever composed for the movies. Aaron Copland praised the music for The Plow for its "frankness and openness of feeling," calling it "fresher, more simple, and more personal" than the Hollywood norm. He called the music for The River "a lesson in how to treat Americana."

The Plow that Broke the Plains was denounced (accurately) as New Deal propaganda. Sensing competition, Hollywood barred The Plow from its distribution system. Billed "The Picture They Dared Us to Show!" it opened at New York's Rialto Theatre and was cheered nightly. Public demand prevailed: eventually, over 3,000 theaters (out of 14,000 commercial cinemas nationally) screened The Plow to enthusiastic reviews. The Baltimore Sun found "more serious drama in this truthful record of the soil than in all the 'Covered Wagons' and 'Big Trails' produced by the commercial cinema."

Voted the best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival (beating Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad), The River was an overwhelming critical and commercial success. Paramount Pictures accepted it for national distribution. Lorentz's script, a Whitmanesque poem called by James Joyce "the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The rationale for the present CD is obvious: the original thirties' soundtracks, gritty and opaque, do not do justice to Thomson's scores; more recently, this music has only been performed and recorded in the form of suites culled by Thomson, with many pages omitted.

* * *

Lorentz was a notable film critic who had never made a film. He had convinced the U. S. Resettlement Administration to fund a documentary that would justify its program for aiding families in areas devastated by natural disaster. He envisioned a lyric educational exercise, both practical and aesthetic, incorporating a history of the Great Plains from the first cattle drives to the punishing drought then entering its sixth year: "Our heroine is the grass, our villain the sun and the wind, our players the actual farmers living in the Plains county. It is a melodrama of nature – the tragedy of turning grass into dust, a melodrama that only Carl Sandburg or Willa Cather, perhaps, could tell as it should be told."

Lorentz was already at the cutting stage when he began looking for a composer. Virgil Thomson was recommended by John Houseman. As Thomson recalled in his Autobiography:

[Lorentz] first explained his film, asked could I imagine writing music for it. My answer was, "How much money have you got?" Said he, "Beyond the costs of orchestra, conductor, and recording, the most I could possibly have left for the composer is five hundred." "Well," said I, "I can't take from any man more than he's got, though if you did have more I would ask for it." My answer delighted him. "All those high-flyers," he said, "talk about nothing but aesthetics. You talk about money; you're a professional."

Thomson also remembered:

Lorentz at thirty, already getting heavy but still darkly good looking and with an eye that both laughed and calculated, was talkative, ambitious, truculent, ever a battler. He battled with Hollywood and with Washington; he battled with his cameramen and with his cutter. For seven months he battled with me over music, money, aesthetics, every single point of contact that we had … Pare's film was his brainchild not yet born, and he could not be stopped from going on about it. He could not bear that I should have to wait till it was finished to add music. He even seemed to hope that I, by sharing his birth pains, might end by writing music in his person.

At forty I could not write music in anybody's person. Collaborative art, I knew from instinct and experience, can only give a good result when each man offers to the common theme, through his own working methods and at the proper time, his own abundance.

Thomson proceeded to score his accompaniment for standard orchestra plus – tellingly – saxophones, guitar, banjo, and (for church music) harmonium. He quoted cowboy songs. He evoked the drought in bare, neo-medieval two-part counterpoint. The final parade of cars, fleeing bankrupt farms, was wickedly coupled with a catchy habanera. Thomson's entire musical patchwork was ineffably American – in its sources, its blithe eclecticism, its informality and humor.

Thomson's score is today considered one of his peak achievements. Lorentz was so impressed that he re-cut sections of The Plow to accommodate the music. Though the U.S. Government had for thirty years produced instructional and informational films, no previous government film had illuminated a national problem so vividly, artistically, or persuasively. The conversion of millions of acres of grassland into wheat fields had stripped the prairie of protection against erosion. A record drought had produced what an Associated Press reporter in 1935 dubbed the "dust bowl" – a blasted landscape of abandoned farms and four-foot high dust drifts; a panorama of bankrupt stores and impassable roads, of hapless farmers bartering eggs for shoes. A 1936 government report blamed "mistaken public policies … a mistaken homesteading policy, the stimulation of wartime demands which led to over-cropping and over-grazing, and encouragement of a system of agriculture which could not be both permanent and prosperous" – all causes elucidated by Lorentz.

* * *

Lorentz and Thomson followed The Plow that Broke the Plains with another government documentary: The River (1937), a case for flood control. As The Plow had traced the history of the Great Plains and shown how abuse of the land led to the dust bowl, The River traces the history of the Mississippi River and argues the necessity of a system of dams to harness water. At the same time – following The Plow – the film magnificently celebrates American land and people.

Thomson's classic score again demonstrates how a style culling American folk music and jazz could prove both aesthetically and didactically satisfying. He intimately partnered Lorentz in the creative process. Lorentz explained in an interview: "Virgil made piano sketches of each section of the movie, and then the crew and I tried to edit it down to a preconceived time, at which point Virgil would get some ideas, genius ideas, and we would work back and forth so that you didn't have a completed score put on top of a completed movie or vice versa." Lorentz's script links the Depression to misuse of the great river and overcultivation and urbanization of its valley, leaving farmland unfit for farming and the "ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed" Americans whose condition Roosevelt famously decried.

The River was completed not long after devastating Mississippi River floods (whose imagery evokes the more recent Katrina disaster). The federal agencies whose remedial work – soil conservatory, reforestation, relocation – Lorentz cites are the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Farm Security Administration (which absorbed the Resettlement Administration), and – as jewel in the crown – the Tennessee Valley Authority, harnessing water to make electricity.

The influence on composers of Thomson's scores for The Plow and The River was scarcely less remarkable than the influence these films exerted on film-makers. In 1939 Copland was invited to score a similarly conceived documentary, funded by the Carnegie Corporation: The City, for the New York World's Fair. Based on an idea by Lorentz, it was directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, both of whom had worked on the earlier Lorentz films. The script was by the city planner Lewis Mumford. Like The Plow, The River was essentially a silent film, exquisitely shot, with overlaid narration. Cueing on Thomson's achievement, Copland explicitly fashioned bracingly spare urban and rural musical signatures for America. He also followed Thomson's lead in spurning musical literalism for cheeky ironic juxtapositions. In The Plow Thomson had accompanied an automotive cavalcade with a habanera; in The City, a Sunday traffic jam is set to a jaunty dance tune. Like his ballets Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944), The City embodied Copland's new direction, beginning in the socially conscious thirties, toward a mass audience he sought to inspire, entertain, and instruct.

And the success of The City enabled Copland to break into Hollywood, where his impact was great. André Previn has remarked: "If I had to summarize what Copland represented in Hollywood, it would be 'fewer notes.'" Thomson, equally parsimonious in the notes department, was arguably as great an influence on Copland as Copland was on Previn and other Hollywood composers. Together, Copland and Thomson counteracted the luxurious Romantic soundtracks of Erich Korngold and Max Steiner that had previously defined Hollywood's musical taste. Copland went on to score a total of ten films; he won an Academy Award for The Heiress (1949). All told, Thomson scored eight films; he received a Pulitzer Prize for Louisiana Story.

* * *

The present recording – a unique opportunity to savor Thomson's purely musical achievement – is a companion to the Naxos DVD (2.110521) featuring both films with new soundtracks – the present recordings plus new narration. As the film-maker George Stoney has commented, both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River function like "evangelical sermons" – they describe a state of grace, its desecration, and – via New Deal policies – redemption.

The sections of The Plow (as titled by Thomson) are:

[1] Prelude. To begin, Angel Gil-Ordóñez restores music that did not fit in the film: 17 measures introducing a theme associated with the elements of nature (it returns in the horns to accompany the storm scene), followed by an essential motif: the doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). The film here identifies the Great Plains.

[2] Pastorale (Grass). "A country of high winds and sun," intones Lorentz's narrator.

[3] Cattle. "First came the cattle – an unfenced range a thousand miles long."

[4] The Homesteader. "Make way for the plowman!" The timpani taps accompany the pounding of "the first fence." "Progress came to the plains." But, ominously: "A country without rivers and little rain … Settler, plow at your peril!"

[5] Warning. Parched land. "Many were disappointed; the rains failed … Many left."

[6] War and the Tractor. "A great day was coming – a day of new causes, new profits, new hopes … Wheat will win the war!" Lorentz here famously juxtaposes tractors and tanks. A headline reads: "War Sends Wheat Soaring." Thomson's tunes include the bawdy World War I soldier's song 'Mademoiselle from Armentières.'

[7] Speculation (Blues). "Then we reaped the golden harvest; then we really plowed the plains … By 1933 the old grasslands had become the new wheatlands." A headline: "Fortunes in Wheat Farms." This sequence closes with a Wall Street ticker tumbling to the floor: the Depression hits.

[8] Drought. Images of devastation: abandoned farm machinery, cracked land. "Once again the rains held off and the sun baked the earth."

[9] Wind and Dust. A tornado. Families run for shelter. At the close: a mournful reprise of the doxology, played (as in a rural church) on a harmonium.

[10] Devastation. A finale, with a musical reprise of the opening music. "Baked out, blown out, and broke, year in, year out, uncomplaining, they fought the worst drought in history." Farm families flee failed farms in rickety cars, a sad cavalcade. "On to the west, once again they headed into the setting sun … They joined the great army of the highways – no place to go, and no place to stop." Thomson ends with a sad habanera.

* * *

In The River, only the Prelude, First Forest, and A Big River are titled in the score; the other titles (below) are not Thomson's.

[11] Prelude

[12] First Forest. "The Mississippi River runs to the gulf, carrying every drop of water that flows down two-thirds the continent."

[13] A Big River. A magnificent visual essay, surveying the Mississippi River's vast expanse. Dikes and levees are constructed.

[14] Cotton Pickers. "And the planters brought their blacks, and their plows, and their cotton over to the river." Cotton pickers, steamboats. "We sent our commerce to the sea … We made cotton king." A military trumpet heralds Robert E. Lee's declaration of surrender, which scrolls down the screen.

[15] Ruins. Remnants of plantations. "We left the old South impoverished and stricken." Both Civil War and cotton cultivation "had taken toll of the land … A double tragedy."

[16] Logging. "There was lumber in the north … lumber on the upper river … lumber enough to cover all Europe." A drum-roll, then a falling tree. To the accompaniment of "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," logs rush down chutes. Great lumber brigades course down the river.

[17] Coal. "There was lumber in the north, and coal in the hills." A coal town. Steel mills (Thomson here uses the jaunty rhythm of "Hot Town," with its thrice repeated quarter notes, to create a pounding furnace motif: one of the score's most delectable thematic transformations). To a reprise of "Hot Time": "We built a hundred cities and a hundred towns … We built a new continent."

[18] Floods. "But at what a cost … We left the mountains and the hills slashed and burned – and moved on." Rain, gathering force, yields torrents of flood water. Submerged homes, rescue boats, homelessness and disease. Futile efforts to reinforce levees.

[19] Requiem. "We planted and plowed with no regard for the future." Thomson applies the nursery tune 'Go Tell Aunt Rhody' with its refrain: "The old gray goose is dead."

[20] Tenancy. Cotton pickers. Impoverished farm families. "And poor land makes poor people … For a quarter of a century we've been forcing more farmers into tenancy … A generation growing up with no new land in the west … a generation facing a life of dirt and poverty" … and in the greatest river valley in the world."

[21] Finale. "The old river can be controlled … in 1933 we started." The New Deal responds with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The river is "locked and dammed, regulated and controlled." The land is "tilled scientifically." The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Farm Security Administration pitch in. "And there is water for power … Power enough to make the river work!"

George Stoney – who worked for and believed in the New Deal; who used The River as New Deal propaganda during his tenure with the Farm Security Administration – looks back at the film's ending and comments: "We now know that what we were saying about flood control is a formula for disaster, as Hurricane Katrina has shown us. We should stay off the flood plains." With its inspired aesthetic felicities and shrewd argumentation, The River functioned admirably to galvanize support for federal initiatives supporting flood victims. Stoney calls it "a hymn to the New Deal" embodying "a perfect statement of New Deal philosophy – and also of New Deal hubris."

Joseph Horowitz
Artistic Director, Post-Classical Ensemble


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