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Music Review: Virgil Thomson – The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River

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Virgil Thomson's The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River is the companion soundtrack for the Naxos DVD The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River. These were two documentaries produced during the Great Depression, directed by Pare Lorentz on behalf of United States Government Resettlement Administration to raise awareness about Franklin Roosevelt’s post-Depression economic plan, historically known as the New Deal. The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) were very effective vehicles for conveying the idea that man’s misuse of the land could only be addressed by man’s renewed stewardship of that same land. Ever since the documentaries initial release, they have been touted as liberal propaganda by the more politically conservative critics.

Propaganda or not, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River sported a superb soundtrack composed my American composer Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989). The original soundtrack was provided by Alexander Smallens and the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Players. The original narration was provided by Metropolitan Opera baritone Thomas Chalmers. Thomson’s scores were integral to both films in providing an emotive and nostalgic landscape. Thomson accomplished this by the careful incorporation of American folk songs, marches, and church hymns into the score at strategic places in the respective documentaries.

Thomson was not the first American composer to provide new settings for well known folk tunes, marches, and hymns. Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869) composed piano music after “America” and various other folk tunes such as “Yankee Doodle” and Stephen Foster compositions (“Camptown Races”). Charles Ives did the same thing, in perhaps a more purist way (see Charles Ives: Variations on America). After Thomson, Aaron Copland made a cottage industry out of American songs (see Aaron Copland: Prairie Music).

It is easier to consider the The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River as pure artistic expression apart from the propaganda of the documentaries. But both can be considered for their respective deeper. Thomson’s music was instrumental in this persuasion as it appealed to the Mom, Apple Pie, and The Fourth of July in all of us. Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant casting of National Socialism as a political religion, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) uses music from none other than Richard Wagner to superb effect in awakening the nationalism and putting the “N” in Nazi.

Thomson accomplished the same ends. His use of American folk tunes to warm the nostalgic national heart and evoke religious images among the nationalistic ones was intentional and effective. Melissa Etheridge did nothing new with her Academy Award-winning song for Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, though she is celebrated for that song as if she invented sliced bread and her song is neither more or less art than Thomson or Wagner. Thomson’s soundtracks do function as art alone if for no other reason that they cast our national songs in an orchestral collage. This disc is very listenable and accessable.


The Plow that Broke the Plains: Prelude; Pastorale (Grass); Cattle; The Homesteader; Warning; War and the Tractor Speculation (Blues); Drought; Wind and Dust; Devastation. The River: Prelude; ;First Forest; A Big River; Cotton Pickers; Ruins; Logging; Coal; Floods; Requiem; Tenancy; Finale.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...