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Ballet Review, March 2009

COPLAND, A.: City (The) (NTSC) 2.110231
THOMSON, V.: Plow that Broke the Plains (The) / The River (NTSC) 2.110521

The City, his first film score, was written in 1939, right after Billy the Kid. Based on an idea by Pare Lorentz, the film contrasts slums and New York at rush hour with idyllic views of a New England village and a modern garden city. First shown at the New York World’s Fair, it’s now a classic in part due to Copland’s imaginative score. This DVD offers it with both a modern soundtrack and the original, plus interviews with older residents of Greenbelt, Maryland, where parts were filmed, and with film experts. It makes a fine companion to the earlier pairing (on Naxos 2.110521) of Lorentz’z famous documentaries from 1936–37, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both with scores by Virgil Thomson, again with modern soundtracks played by the Post-Classical ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordoñez, with similar extras.

Richard Gate
Limelight, November 2007

The scores were written by Virgil Thomson and have long been admired in their won right and recorded often. For this DVD, the original soundtrack was replaced by a modern version read by Floyd King; the music is played by the Post-Classical ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The disc is supplemented by several extras including interviews. It will be of great value to anyone interested in the cinema, film music and American history in the Depression.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, July 2007

The films themselves make interesting viewing. Of course they are dated, but not as much as one might think, because we continue to do harm to our environment through thoughtless or selfish actions.

The historical importance of this release is undeniable. It probably is essential for fans of the composer, as well as for those who are interested in the history of the documentary film, the Great Depression… © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2007

The famous Pare Lorentz films from the mid-1930s, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, have been combined on a single DVD (2.110521). Designed as propaganda films for the New Deal, produced and paid for by the federal government, they deal with the misuse of natural resources (so what else is new?) in what has since been called the Dust Belt and on the Mississippi River. The print quality is more than acceptable; the voice-over narration has been newly recorded by Floyd King as have Virgil Thomson’s brilliant scores (in stereo and DTS Surround) by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Thomson’s music, which is playing most of the time, is a marvelous treatment of Americana, mainly because he makes little attempt to “improve” the cowboy songs and hymns by treating them in a sophisticated manner. Instead, accepting their simplicity, he orchestrates them sparsely but colorfully and lets them speak for themselves. Combined with the images, it is all very moving. An important release, historically and musically.

Michael Anthony
StarTribune, May 2007

Here's a treasure aimed at both the film buff and the music lover: new cleaned-up versions of Pare Lorentz's classic documentaries The Plow That Broke the Plains(1936) and The River (1937). Released by Naxos, they feature newly recorded narration and performances of Virgil Thomson's influential scores by the Post-Classical Ensemble.

The Plow describes in graphic but poetic terms the gradual destruction of the soil of the plains states from Minnesota to Oklahoma as grasslands were gradually converted to wheatlands, a process that eventually killed the topsoil and resulted in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when homes, as Lorentz's narration tells us, became "nightmares of swirling dust," and, as John Steinbeck later chronicled in The Grapes of Wrath, desperate people dropped their plows and headed west.

The later film describes the flooding of the Mississippi River and how government agencies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed dams, levees and power plants to save the struggling farmers. All of this on one level was propaganda for the New Deal, but Lorentz and Thomson managed with these two short films to create something on a high artistic level that even today remains impressive.

In what was his first film score, Thomson used hymn tunes, cowboy songs, pop songs and what he called "white spirituals" to create a web of Americana that Aaron Copland praised for its "frankness and openness of feeling," calling it "fresher, more simple and more personal" than the Hollywood norm. Thomson used a small orchestra, too, as opposed to the standard symphonic ensembles of Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold then common in Hollywood, and he gave prominence to guitar, banjo and saxophone.

There are humorous as well as sad touches. He quotes the "Doxology" ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"), letting the music shine at the start, but when he repeats it at the end, when the poor sharecroppers are piling onto their ragged cars, it's only a lonely-sounding harmonium playing the tune. Those blessings are no longer flowing.

Among the added features are valuable interviews with composer Charles Fussell and filmmaker George Stoney, and we even hear comments on audio from Thomson himself, who died in 1989. Fussell, a longtime associate of Thomson's, tells how it was that Thomson got the job: Lorentz also interviewed Roy Harris and Copland, both of whom talked about aesthetics in their meeting. Thomson, on the other hand, talked about only one thing: money. To Lorentz, that meant Thomson was a professional, and so he hired him.

Frank Behrens
Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinel, March 2007

By a strange coincidence, I just finished a chapter of Oscar Levant’s 1940 set of essays, “A Smattering of Ignorance,” in which he talks about the many Hollywood film scores that are not up to snuff and the few that are excellent. At the very end, he writes, “Among persons of musical discrimination the only scores for American films that are spoken of with enthusiasm were written without exception for non-commercial films. I think particularly of Virgil Thomson’s scores for The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both produced by the government.”

The coincidence is that on that very day, I had finished viewing both of those films on a Naxos DVD. Commissioned by the government in the middle of the Great Depression, “The Plow” (1936) and “The River” (1937) were directed by Pare Lorentz and scored by Virgil Thomson. I have heard the music to “Plow” many times, and I always wondered what the film was like.

On the Naxos release, the visual is improved and the narration and musical background are newly recorded by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordonez. “The Plow” is about all the mistakes made by the government in allowing crops to be indiscriminately planted without preserving the grass that held the top soil together. The result was the Dust Bowl and the suffering so well pictured in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“The River” is concerned with how the mighty Mississippi fights back against all of man’s efforts to tame it. The flood sequences here are only too familiar to post-Katrina viewers.

The visual style of both films is highly influenced by Russian directors of the time, and those familiar with Soviet films of the 1920s and 1930s will spot the similarities. Each of Lorentz’s films is basically a silent film with narration and music.

The bonuses are interviews with men who tie in the films with the events of the time (rather unimaginatively done with static shots of the speakers’ “talking heads”). Another bonus shows the original start and conclusion to “Plow,” both of which were abridged when originally shown.

Both short documentaries tell fabulous stories, are impressively filmed, and are much enhanced by Thomson’s now-classical scores.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, March 2007

I remember being exposed to these two films in early grade school - guess that dates me. Both films were the first documentaries made by the U.S. Government for commercial release, trying to educate the public about The New Deal. They were really propaganda films with a good goal, and tried to be innovative with the film medium in a similar way the Soviets and Nazis had already been doing. They were a mix of poetic imagery, free verse narration and original symphonic scores by Thomson (who did The Plow for $500 as his first score). While Lorentz also had never made a film before, he hired great photographers such as Paul Strand, and there was an openness in the sharing of ideas among those creating the films. Lorentz had difficult getting some of the stock footage he required in Hollywood because the major studios didn't like the idea of the U.S. Government horning in on their territory.

The narration replaced sync sound, which at the time was too expensive to use, and anyway most of the images were of landscapes and more distant vistas than close-ups of people. The Plow That Broke the Plains follows the history of the Great Plains and how continual abuse of the land plus a long drought caused the terrible Dust Bowl which sent poor farmers on the road to the West Coast. Demands for wheat during the First World War are shown to have been factor in over-farming the land. The CCC and other New Deal institutions are shown at the end of the film helping to improve life the affected farmers.The River similarly traces the history of the Mississippi - draining two-thirds of the U.S. continent, it points out. Devastating erosion and floods are shown - one in New Orleans ringing bells about Hurricane Katrina. The solution is shown to be the building of dams, with a focus on the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Of course now we realize dams are seldom the answer...) While showing the disasters visited on some of them, both films honor the American land and people, and a major element in that is Virgil Thomson's music.

Thomson scoured American folk music and jazz for most of his themes, and the manner in which he presented them set the standard for what we now recognize as "Americana" in concert music works. Copland and his quintessentially American-sounding music wouldn't have been possible without Thomson showing the way. Some of the themes - such as the Doxology - were super-familiar to most of the audiences of the time and caused a strong emotional connection with The Plow's message. Thomson and Copland together offered an alternative in their spare, chamber and folk-oriented scores to the lush Romantic standard then established in Hollywood film scores by such as Korngold and Steiner.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, based in Washington D.C., recorded the entire Thomson score, including sections edited; out in later releases of the films, and their soundtrack is provided in thrilling DTS 5.1 surround as well as Dolby and PCM. If you want to hear the original, scratchy and underfed musical score, you can select that option in the extras. Actually, I preferred the approach of the original narrator to the replacement hi-fi narrator - I thought his earnest "voice of God" approach better fit the archetypal images. But the new full orchestral score in surround is a major improvement. And the extras provide fascinating background on the films and on Virgil Thomson.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, March 2007

Thanks to high-profile documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11" and “An Inconvenient Truth,” most independent non-fiction films have gotten a boost they’ve never had before: even those unseen in theaters get released on DVD for the benefit of a whole new potential audience. Here are a dozen of the most stimulating recent documentaries on disc:

. . . Two documentary films commissioned during the 1930s New Deal have been restored along with new recordings of Virgil Thompson’s lovely musical accompaniment: “The Plow that Broke the Plains” follows farmers on the Great Plains during the Depression, and “The River” is a glimpse at how the Mississippi River was tamed by several New Deal projects. Along with Thompson’s music in superb DTS surround sound, the DVD includes several interviews related to the films and Thompson’s involvement.

Thomas L. Kiefner
Golden Scores, March 2007

Likely for at least 30 years or more these selections have been a standard in the American classical music section of many a collector and enthusiast. Falling into that category and having greatly enjoyed the Stokowski/Symphony of the Airs/Vanguard LP for a long time I never quite paid much attention to the fact that this music was written for two Pare Lorentz directed documentaries produced for the Federal government in 1936/1937. Simply put I never had the opportunity to view the films until this new release on Naxos DVD with a newly recorded soundtrack by Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble. This new recording includes music not used in the original soundtrack but has been reinstated for this DVD.

The Plow was praised by Aaron Copland for its "frankness and openness of feeling" and was the first film to be placed in the Congressional archives by FDR. It tells the story quite frankly of how the wheat fields through misuse turned into a "dust bowl" during a horrible drought in 1935. Completely the opposite of what Korngold and Steiner were doing with their lush romantic scores, Copland and Thomson were men of few notes Using harmonium, guitar, banjo, and saxophone with a standard orchestra the tone poem oozes pure Americana. Upon listening one can clearly hear how much Thomson influenced Copland in his writing. So impressed was Lorentz with the score, even though he only paid Thomson 0.00, he edited some of his footage around the music!

The River, the story of the Mississippi River floods of 1937, resulted in the Tennessee Valley Authority and the harnessing of its mighty power for electricity. Written using some of the hymns and cowboy themes of the time Copland credits it as "a lesson in how to treat Americana". From dissonance to tender melodies to cross rhythms to kaleidoscopic scherzos The River is absolutely wonderful.

Also included on the DVD are interviews from George Stoney, film maker and director, composer Charles Fussell and Virgil Thomson who talks about the use of film music. Thomson will surprise the soundtrack collector with some of his comments about what he refers to as corny emotion music. Considering the time frame of his music it was really quite radical compared to others of the same time frame. While both films make you ponder, The River makes one wonder how little we have learned about flood control given the recent Katrina disaster.

If you have never heard the scores before and you have heard Copland you will be surprised at the similiarity of the music style. If you haven't heard either composer this is at least one way to introduce yourself to Thomson with two of his better works and always remember the good value that Naxos has to offer. Highly recommended.

F. Swietek
Video Librarian, March 2007

Pare Lorentz's titular pair of documentaries from 1936 and 1938 - the first a historical overview of the Great Plains, culminating in the tragedy of the Dust Bowl; the second a paean to the Mississippi River emphasizing the destruction that follows flooding- were essentially government propaganda films promoting the policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But like the works of Leni Riefenstahl (though on a much smaller scale), the films transcend their "official" purpose, featuring carefully composed and edited shots and almost songlike narration that elevate them into impressionistic cinematic poems, backed by notable scores from Virgil Thomson, who used source music - folk themes, hymns, anthems, and traditional tunes- to create virtual suites of Americana. This DVD offers fine full-screen transfers of both films, but the particular value lies with the Thomson scores, which have been newly recorded for the soundtrack (along with the narration) and are presented in crisp and clean DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo (with the option to listen to the original 1930s soundtracks). DVD extras include discussions of the films by filmmaker and scholar George Stoney, an assessment of Thomson by musicologis Charles Fussell, an audio excerpt of Thomson speaking about his scores, and the Plow's original beginning and ending (the latter unabashedly promoting Roosevelt administration programs, excised shortly after the original release). A major release that does these two historically and artistically significant films - and an important American composer - proud, this is highly recommended.

Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times, February 2007

NEVER in American history, many argue, have political parties and administrations been more brazen about image manipulation and message control than they are now. But recent examples—the “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing, the new Democratic leadership team’s victory lap packaged as a listening tour—seem hapless in comparison with “The Plow That Broke the Plains” and “The River,” two government-financed documentaries from the 1930s that were shameless propaganda efforts.

These historic, engrossing and artistically rich films, directed by Pare Lorentz with original scores by Virgil Thomson, can be seen in a new DVD release from Naxos. Together they tell a grim saga of unchecked development in the Great Plains and the Mississippi River network. New Deal programs are presented as noble ventures aimed at aiding refugee families devastated by floods, droughts and dust storms, and offering the only means to reclaim America’s natural resources and right the environmental damage.

“The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) and “The River” (1937) will make die-hard liberals long for the time when the government really knew how to produce propaganda on behalf of worthy causes. For a brief while, to propagate its domestic programs, the Roosevelt administration went into the movie business.

Thomson’s scores were crucial elements of both films. Sound technology was still relatively new. Lugging recording equipment into the field to capture human voices and the sounds of natural disasters would have been almost impossible. So the documentaries were conceived as silent films, with grandly poetic voice-over narrations and near-continuous musical scores.

The scores were originally performed by a pickup orchestra of players from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Alexander Smallens. The narrator was Thomas Chalmers, a Met baritone with a mellifluously oratorical speaking voice.

But the sound quality on the original prints is thin and crackly. So for this DVD, produced by the critic and concert impresario Joseph Horowitz, Naxos recruited the conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez to record the scores freshly with the Post-Classical Ensemble. The performances are lively and stylish. Floyd King makes an aptly oratorical narrator. Extra features include interviews that shed light on the improbable geneses of these films.

At the time Mr Lorentz, who died in 1992, was a noted young film critic and an avowed supporter of the New Deal. Though he had never directed a film, he had collected raw material for one, including photographs of dust storms—caused, in part, by the overplowing of the Plains—bread lines and migrant workers. He found a sympathetic government official in Rexford Guy Tugwell, the director of the Resettlement Administration, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Mr Tugwell backed “The Plow” and allotted Mr Lorentz a budget of $6,000. Mr Lorentz wound up spending more than $19,000.

Thomson, who died in 1989, loved to tell how he had been selected to work on “The Plow.” Mr Lorentz had previously talked with Roy Harris and Aaron Copland but hadn’t hit it off with either. He approached Thomson on the recommendation of a mutual friend, the director John Houseman.

When Mr Lorentz described the project, Thomson immediately asked, “How much money have you got?” Mr Lorentz said he could offer a composer no more than $500. Thomson, as he related in his 1966 autobiography, told Mr Lorentz: “I can’t take from any man more than he’s got, though if you did have more I would ask for it.” Thomson added: “My answer delighted him. ‘All those high-flyers,’ he said, ‘talk about nothing but aesthetics. You talk about money; you’re a professional.’ ”

Thomson was affected by the richly textured images of wheat fields, dust storms, arid lands, struggling settlers and impoverished migrant workers that Mr Lorentz’s top-flight, left-leaning cameramen had taken. In truth, some crucial scenes of struggling farmers had been filmed with actors. Thomson and Mr Lorentz agreed that the landscape should be rendered through the music of its people.

In an interview recorded in 1979 by the Yale Oral History Project and excerpted as a feature here, Thomson explains his approach to “The Plow.” The best way to elicit the intended emotional response from an audience, he says, is through “source music,” not abstract “emotion music, which is corny to start with.”

Thomson pored over collections of cowboy songs and settler folklore. Working under pressure, he produced 25 minutes of music in less than a week. The score uses familiar tunes, like “Laredo” and “Git Along, Little Dogies,” sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes as themes for contrapuntal development. The soundtrack is a patchwork of dances, hymns, neo-medieval counterpoint and, to evoke the Great Plains, choralelike passages with wide-spaced harmonies (a style that would soon influence Copland, then still in his thorny modernist phase).

Sometimes Thomson uses music to provoke a playful reaction. During a 1918 war sequence, for example, when the narrator explains that farmers were being pressed to turn grazing lands into wheat fields, we see a phalanx of tractors coming over a hill, like a battalion of tanks on a battlefield. Thomson accompanies this scene with a rousing orchestral rendition of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” the marching song of American troops during World War I.

For the final segment Thomson makes a counterintuitive choice. In the spirit of an evangelical peroration “The Plow” ends with the narrator calling for action on behalf of desperate displaced farmers, some 50,000 a month, who ask only for “a chance to start over,” a chance “for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again.” It concludes, “The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

Thomson accompanies the segment with, of all things, a tango. Yet somehow it works. The dance is rousing and confident. If the music seems incongruous, perhaps Thomson was subliminally signaling audiences that of course they were being manipulated, but toward a good end.

In any event, the major Hollywood studios, fearing controversy, at first refused to screen “The Plow” in theaters. But the film’s notoriety created a public demand, and it played as a 30-minute short along with feature films in theaters across America, mostly to cheering audiences and glowing reviews. “What the government has been saying about dust storms in the newspaper was said here in 30 minutes of unforgettable pictures,” the critic for The Nation wrote. Exactly so.

The DVD includes a fascinating interview with the filmmaker George Stoney. Born in 1916, Mr Stoney was a first-hand witness to the phenomenon of “The Plow” and “The River.” Both films, he explains, are like sermons. Man is placed by God in Eden; but man sins, so we recognize our flaws, repent and achieve salvation. How? Why, through the Tennessee Valley Authority and other Roosevelt programs.

The texts have a poetic character that recalls biblical passages invoking names and places. In “The River” the narrator, describing the destruction of primeval forests, intones, “Black spruce and Norway pine, Douglas fir and red cedar; scarlet oak and shagbark hickory: we built a hundred cities and a thousand towns, but at what cost?”

Yet as Mr Stoney comments, if these documentaries exhibit New Deal fervor, they also reveal New Deal hubris. The answer to flood control and sensible development was that a mighty river had to be “locked, dammed, regulated and controlled,” he says. We now know better. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic lesson in the limits of our ability to manage nature.

Mr Stoney also points out that to win support for his domestic programs, Prersident Franklin D. Roosevelt had to make a silent pact with Southern Democrats and mostly look the other way about race issues and segregation. “The Plow” acknowledges as much in a few fleeting scenes. At one point, describing the settlement of the Great Plains, the narrator says, “And they brought their blacks, their plows and their cotton.”

During a segment that touches on the Civil War, the film shows the final paragraphs of the text for the farewell speech of Robert E. Lee, the defeated Confederate general. Mr Stoney says that during screenings, audiences in the South would stand up as these sacred words scrolled by, accompanied by Thomson’s reflective music.

On the success of “The Plow” and “The River,” Roosevelt was so impressed with the communicative potential of documentaries that he financed the United States Film Service. But Congress, rightly viewing the program as a propaganda machine, scuttled its budget.

Corporate America had no such reticence. A decade later Thomson composed a score for Robert J. Flaherty’s film “Louisiana Story.” Officially the film is a drama with actors and a script telling the story of a Cajun boy in the Bayou who rafts through alligator-infested marshes and inky rivers and speaks French at home with his parents. The boy watches with awestruck wariness as industry arrives in the form of oil rigs and massive derricks.

But the film, produced by Standard Oil of New Jersey, becomes a reassuring tale of how industry and nature can live in harmony. Though “Louisiana Story” is a cinematically stunning and artistically distinguished work (it’s available on a Home Vision DVD), it is also a piece of absolute propaganda.

An orchestral suite from Thomson’s score for “Louisiana Story” earned him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1949, still the only film music to be so honored. The paradox about Thomson’s involvement in propagandistic films is that he always claimed to have no interest in political ideology. As Mr Lorentz figured out, Thomson was a professional. A professional for hire of course.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2007

Pare Lorentz's titular pair of documentaries from 1936 and 1938 - the first a historical overview of the Great Plains, culminating in the tragedy of the Dust Bowl; the second a paean to the Mississippi River emphasizing the destruction that follows flooding- were essentially government propaganda films promoting the policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But like the works of Leni Riefenstahl (though on a much smaller scale), the films transcend their "official" purpose, featuring carefully composed and edited shots and almost songlike narration that elevate them into impressionistic cinematic poems, backed by notable scores from Virgil Thomson, who used source music - folk themes, hymns, anthems, and traditional tunes- to create virtual suites of Americana. This DVD offers fine full-screen transfers of both films, but the particular value lies with the Thomson scores, which have been newly recorded for the soundtrack (along with the narration) and are presented in crisp and clean DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo (with the option to listen to the original 1930s soundtracks). DVD extras include discussions of the films by filmmaker and scholar George Stoney, an assessment of Thomson by musicologis Charles Fussell, an audio excerpt of Thomson speaking about his scores, and the Plow's original beginning and ending (the latter unabashedly promoting Roosevelt administration programs, excised shortly after the original release). A major release that does these two historically and artistically significant films - and an important American composer - proud, this is highly recommended.

Sam Graham, February 2007

Art and propaganda meet to powerful effect in these two documentaries from the 1930s. Written and directed by Pare Lorentz, both The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River were made (in black & white) by the U.S government and clearly intended to promote President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of initiatives designed to help the country recover from the Great Depression. Yet that fact detracts not at all from their artistry, as the combination of Lorentz's visuals and words and composer Virgil Thomson's music (the voice-over narration and the scores for both films were "re-created" in 2005 for this release) is often quite genuinely transcendent. Released in 1936 and sponsored by the U.S. Resettlement Administration, The Plow focuses on the Great Plains, those millions of grassy acres sprawled between Texas and Canada--"a high, treeless continent," the narration tells us, "without rivers or streams, a country of high winds and sun, and of little rain"--and how, after settlers wiped out the Indians and buffalo who once inhabited the area, the great prosperity and progress that followed eventually left the land over-grazed and over-farmed, turning it into a parched, cracked Dust Bowl, its people impoverished and desperately in need of food, care, jobs, and another chance. The River, from the following year, details the remarkable growth of trade and travel along the Mississippi River, where the booming farming, lumber, iron, coal, and steel industries stripped the surrounding land of its soil and roots, leading to the weakening of the river's levees and disastrous flooding (shades of New Orleans 2005), with government agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Farm Security Administration offering the best chance to escape this ruinous cycle.

The films are filled with striking images and poetry, but in the end, it's Thomson's music that makes the greatest impression; truly cinematic in scope, it draws on well known tunes ("There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight"), hymns ("The Doxology") and the composer's own brilliance to create a thoroughly American sound whose moods perfectly match and enhance what we see on the screen. An hour or so of bonus features includes discussion of all the films' elements (Thomson himself weighs in during an old audio interview), as well as the original beginning and ending of The Plow.

Scott Morrison,, February 2007

Two Masterpieces of Documentary Film Restored with Newly Recorded Musical Scores by Virgil Thomson

Pare Lorentz's two groundbreaking 1930s documentaries, paid for by the US government and making no apologies for their propagandist intentions, are here presented with the evocative scores by composer Virgil Thomson played in modern sound by the Post-Classical Ensemble with Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducting. There are unnerving modern resonances in these two films, one about the plow's partial destruction of the great plains that led to the Dust Bowl (reminding us of the modern near-depletion of the Ogalalla aquifer in that same area), and the other about upstream flood control containment by dikes and levees of the Mississipi for 1000 miles of its length, touted as a great marvel of man's taming of Nature but as we now know contributing to such things as the awful destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The black-and-white films themselves are visually beautiful. The cameramen sent to photograph scenes used in the film included such luminaries as Paul Strand. The narration, written by Lorentz, is poetic.

Thomson's music is simple-sounding and triadic in the extreme, making use as it does of such tunes as the Doxology ('Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow', scored differently and aptly at different points in 'The Plow') and 'Go Tell Aunt Rhody.' And it is both esthetically and emotionally satisfying. The DVD makes use of a modern re-recording of Thomson's scores, and the new recording of the original voice-over narration is nicely done by Floyd King. There is, however, the option to play both films with the original scores' 1930s soundtrack music conducted by Alexander Smallens. We also get a couple of interviews with George Stoney, later himself a distinguished documentarian but in the 1930s a PR person for the government; he showed the films to groups of citizens in the Southeast and recalls many details about the films' origins and their initial reception. Joseph Horowitz talks with composer Charles Fussell, a student of Thomson's, about the scores. (It might be noted that there has been a recent CD on the Albany label that presents both Thomson's and Fussell's cello concertos, and very nicely done, too.) There is a 1979 audio-only interview with the late Virgil Thomson in which he talks about the two films and about film-scoring in general.

I had been familiar with the scores of these two films for many years. As I grew up in the Dust Bowl area, I remember many stories of that awful period and had been particularly interested to see 'The Plow'. (As a small bit of irony, I now live in the Vermont town where the inventor of that plow, John Deere, learned the blacksmithing trade.) I must say that I was thrilled with both films. These are important documents restored to their original luster.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Olivia Bartlett
Wesleyan Connection, February 2007

Wesleyan Orchestra Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez addresses the impact of humanity on the environment and chronicles the settlement of the Great Plains through music on a newly-released DVD.

His Washington D.C.-based orchestra, Post-Classical Ensemble, provides the soundtrack for director Pare Lorentz's landmark New Deal-Era Classics documentaries The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938).

The dual-film DVD, released Jan. 30 by classical music label Naxos, features the first modern recordings of Virgil Thomson's original scores, performed by Gil-Ordóñez's ensemble. Due to a small budget, the original soundtrack was recorded in one session with the poor sound-quality of the 1930s.

"What our effort demonstrates is that the music of Virgil Thomson is extraordinary," Gil-Ordóñez says. "The documentaries can not be fully appreciated unless the music has the quality that it deserves. We re-recorded soundtrack recuperating parts of the score that were neglected in the original film, whose soundtrack besides was in very bad shape."

The new restored soundtrack is already nationally-acclaimed.

"The Post-Classical Ensemble's new recording of Virgil Thomson's soundtrack and the fascinating supplementary materials all enhance the historic value of this wonderful DVD," writes Paul Boyer, editor-in chief of the Oxford Companion to United States History.

Both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River are artful evocations Midwestern America in the 1930s that address the impact of humanity on its environment and the use of the media to communicate political messages.

Between 1933-1937, the U.S. Government, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, enacted the New Deal programs with a hope to help the American public recover from the Great Depression. Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration, the government sponsored several public relations campaigns involving photography, radio and film. The Resettlement Administration paid Lorentz to film both The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, and Virgil Thomson's accompanying soundtracks rank among the composer's greatest work. They set the trend in the 1930s and 1940s for a new style of film music.

The River, which was filmed in 14 states, tells the story of the Tennessee Valley Authority and building dams on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It was named to the National Film Registry in 1990 and won best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.

The Plow That Broke the Plains retraced the history of the Great Plains and the abuse of the land that led to the creation of the Dust Bowl. The film, described by historian Neil Lerner as "the most widely publicized attempt by the federal government to communicate to its entire citizenry through a motion picture," received denunciations as New Deal propaganda and was shunned by the commercial distribution movie system. Despite this impediment, the documentary reached people in over 3,000 theaters nationwide.

In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Thomson augmented the orchestra with saxophones, guitar, banjo, and harmonium, and used cowboy songs to depict the Midwest. Gil-Ordóñez mimicked this style.

Gil-Ordóñez first conducted the Post-Classical Ensemble in a live performance accompanying these two landmark documentaries at the American Film Institute's "Silverdocs," an annual documentary film festival in June 2005. With support from the Center for the Arts, Gil-Ordóñez again directed the soundtracks with Wesleyan University Orchestra as a benefit for Katrina's victims in November 2005.

"We spent almost one month in the studio to add the narration and the sound effects, and look for a perfect balance because I never like my own recordings," he says, smiling.

Gil-Ordóñez, a native of Spain, says the DVD's release could not be more timely.

"The documentaries show a part of the history of this country essential to understand the present times," he explains. "The River is Katrina 80 years ago. Who would have told us that Katrina would happen two months after we recorded the music."

The DVD, produced with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, is distributed in the United States by Naxos of America and can be purchased online at

"I wish every young American might be exposed to these documentaries, and that some politicians might learn that with imagination and art is how you really make a difference in a society," he says.

Philip Kennicott
The Washington Post, January 2007

At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Pare Lorentz's "The River" won best documentary for his New Deal film about the flooding and "taming" of the Mississippi River, beating Leni Riefenstahl's far more ambitious "Olympia," a visual symphony shot at Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl's celebration of athletic competition had strong Nazi undertones, but it was Lorentz's Mississippi film that was the more forthright exercise in propaganda. It was bought and paid for by the U.S. government, an effort to convince the public that Roosevelt-era projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, would make the United States a more fair, livable and humane society.

It is such good propaganda that watching it 70 years later on a new Naxos DVD feels a little creepy.

"The River" was one of two major projects that Lorentz filmed with music commissioned from composer and famous music critic Virgil Thomson, and the DVD includes vibrant new recordings of the soundtracks by the D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble. Thomson's music, combined with the Whitmanesque torrents of poetry in Lorentz's script and powerful images of natural grandeur and squalid poverty, makes "The River" and the earlier "The Plow That Broke the Plains" disturbing examples of what a full-fledged American propaganda machine might produce. There are moments, especially involving tractors (the great fetish object of 20th-century propagandists), when you are certain that this film could have been produced in one of the political film mills of the totalitarian states of Europe.

The music draws on Thomson's study and appreciation of cowboy ditties, church hymns and other folk melodies, all of which have such deep and far-reaching associations that few Americans will fail to find something that is both familiar and unconsciously haunting. Lorentz was smart enough to recognize great music when he heard it, and he cut his films to fit Thomson's scores when necessary. The result is a quasi-operatic film that comes as close as anything this country produced to the great collaborations between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev in the Soviet Union.

Although Thomson recycled his music into popular concert suites, hearing it in its original context is revelatory. He was taking film music in a very different direction from the composers who took root in Hollywood in the mid-1930s (Max Steiner, Franz Waxman), who were working in a lush, heavily orchestrated, post-Wagnerian vein. Often described as "deceptively simple," Thomson's music was leaner and more transparent, but filled with little flourishes, such as fugal passages, that set it far above the hackwork that accompanied so many commercial films. He followed the progress of the film's editing closely, and his music is always in subtle dialogue with what one sees on-screen.

Given the state of camera technology at the time, it was prohibitively expensive, and unwieldy, to film outdoors with sound for a low-budget documentary. So Lorentz's original soundtrack was made mostly in the studio, with Thomson's music, a Voice of God narration and the occasional bit of "diegetic" sound (whistles, explosions, etc.) added when the visuals demanded it. That made it easy to rerecord the entire soundtrack from scratch for the DVD -- which puts these often difficult-to-find films into general circulation again. The DVD also includes an option to play the film with the original, rather tinny sound, but most viewers will be far more satisfied with the new version, including the voice-over (by Shakespeare Theatre favorite Floyd King) that miraculously captures the orotund and overheated rhetorical style of the original.

The DVD also includes commentary from George Stoney, who showed "The River" often while he worked at the Farm Security Administration. Stoney's observation that the film is structured like "an evangelical sermon" nails it. Both films build from a loving description of the landscape and then introduce the depredations of man into this state of innocence. The land is overtaxed, man has squandered his inheritance, nature takes its revenge. But through the benign grace of your government, help is on the way. If you've never teared up at the sight of a reforestation project or a new hydroelectric dam, well, maybe you haven't seen Lorentz's work.

Perhaps the most haunting images here are flooding scenes on the Mississippi. As Lorentz was finishing up "The River," a huge flood overwhelmed the vast Mississippi system -- and Lorentz sent his cameramen to capture the devastation. The film offers the hope that the river might one day be tamed, from the Gulf of Mexico to its farthest reaches into the continent. That was a false hope and now, after Hurricane Katrina, we know just how false. But the power of propaganda overwhelms any nagging questions raised by our sense of historical hindsight. Even if the idea of the government's funding these films is abhorrent to you, even if the message they offer was premised on questionable land management ideas, cinematically they still work.

The propaganda impulse would move, in the 1940s, to Hollywood, as the major studios got behind the war effort. But mostly, American artists have shunned the idea of "Show Business for Uncle Sam," as Thomson titled the chapter in his biography that covered his work with Lorentz. That doesn't mean we don't get plenty of propaganda -- presidential photo ops, "video news releases" that masquerade as local television reporting -- but we have not, very often, had propaganda of this quality and mastery and detail. These films are a lot of fun, but you'll leave relieved there weren't more of them.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, January 2007

While DVDs generally fall outside the purview of CROCKS Newsletters, this one is so exceptional that we had to bring it to your attention. In fact, it could well turn out to be the most interesting video release of the year! That's because the now rarely seen documentary films presented here are absolute classics. They combine stunning cinematography with some of the most original American music ever written, and moving narrations that border on the poetic. Pare Lorentz wrote and directed these FDR "New Deal" epics and hired Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) to provide the music. He certainly got his money's worth! The composer produced not only what many consider his finest scores, but some of the best ever written for the silver screen. Thomson, who studied at Harvard and then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, had the ability to write and orchestrate in an amazingly clear, simple and directly meaningful way. For the Lorentz films he used these talents 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, it had such a uniquely compelling sound that it greatly influenced what would come later from other American composers, particularly Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. The finer points of Thomson's exquisite scores don't come through on the original 1930s soundtracks, but that's not the case with this DVD! The music and narration have been newly recorded giving these extraordinary documentaries a new lease on life. In the process, several music cuts made in the original films have been restored. We have the outstanding, up-and-coming conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and his Post-Classical Ensemble to thank for this. Known in the Washington, D.C. area for their imaginative programming and sensitive performances, they really outdo themselves here. Their efforts would undoubtedly have pleased the composer, who was also a formidable music critic. Dating from 1936, The Plow That Broke the Plains 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 and prevent them. Thomson considered The Plow... his finest film score. But Gil-Ordonez makes an exceptionally strong case for The River, by turning it into a highly emotional cinematographic symphonic experience which you'll not soon forget. A word of advice: you'll appreciate these movies all the more if you first watch the special feature interviews with composer Charles Fussell, who studied with Virgil and knew him well, and educational film expert George Stoney. There's also a brief audio track with Thomson commenting on these film scores. Both documentaries are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. The sound is excellent and offered in Dolby(2.0), Dolby(5.1) or DTS(5.1). Additional special features include the planned, but later discarded beginning and ending for The Plow..., as well as the original soundtracks for both movies. Incidentally, Thomson fans should make sure they check out a recent CD featuring his cello concerto along with some pieces by his student and good friend Charles Fussell.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group