The Plow That Broke The Plains and The River/Thomson

March 15, 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 $500.00, 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.

Golden Scores Rating is (****)

Recorded and Produced by Steven K. Zakar

Engineer is Jim Curtis

Naxos # is 2.110521

One Response to “The Plow That Broke The Plains and The River/Thomson”

  1. Boy George Says:

    Oh wait. Yes, I have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it in me right now to type it all out again. Besides, it was just ramblings anyway. You didn’t want to hear me go on and on about this, right?

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