“And I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
As media becomes more sophisticated, complex, and ubiquitous, its criticism demands more refined definition, inclusion, exclusion, and aesthetic valuation. This criticism is tested in evaluating the Naxos DVD re-mastering of post-Great Depression documentaries The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), 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. Decidedly propaganda by any standards, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River 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.
The Naxos DVD release boasts newly recorded Virgil Thomson scores for both documentaries by Post-Classical Ensemble with music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez, replacing the original scores performed by a pick-up band of New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera players under the direction of Alexander Smallens. The original narration by Metropolitan Opera baritone Thomas Chalmers is replaced with newly recorded narration by Floyd King.
Ever the documenters, Naxos provides both the original and new soundtracks and narrations on this DVD as well as interviews with George Stoney, filmmaker and director, composer Charles Fussell, and Virgil Thomson, who talks about the use of music in film where he waxes poetic on mood manipulation in music and the idea that music should not reflect the composer. Thomson’s scores were integral to both films in providing an emotive and nostalgic landscape.
Having the original and newly minted soundtracks to compare is a plus not simply for the superior modern sonics but also for the different approach to performance. The new soundtrack could have only benefited from the existence of the original for comparison. Angel Gil-Ordóñez deftly sculpts Thomson’s simply conceived and harmonized melodies. The attentive listener will note these same melodies in many of the compositions of Aaron Copland