Notes and Editorial Reviews
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.
R E V I E W:
If you just want the music – this disc is as authoritative as it gets.
Pare Lorentz’s documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, are considered to be some of the best ever made. Dismissed by some as government propaganda they draw their strength from the filmmaker’s unwavering support for Roosevelt’s New Deal and the belief that farmers in the drought-stricken ‘dust bowls’ were entitled to federal support. Commissioned by the US Government the films highlight the very real dangers of farming in the Great Plains – then in the grip of a terrible drought – and the need for flood prevention along the Mississippi.
Thanks to Naxos and Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble we now have Thomson’s complete scores on CD at last. Yes, there is something of the plain-spoken style one associates with Copland – who admired The Plow for its ‘frankness and openness of feeling’ – but the ‘voice’ is unmistakably his own.
And despite the biblical proportions of this tragedy Thomson eschews the epic approach in favour of something much plainer, more intimate. The gentle Pastorale (Grass) certainly recalls Copland at his open-hearted best. This is a vision of Eden, of grasslands as yet unspoilt, and Thomson manages to suggest both this happy state and a sense of wide open spaces with a remarkable economy of style. Beneath the music’s often naïve charm the timps beat, portents of the destruction to come, yet for all that Thomson never allows the music to become portentous. Indeed, Lorentz’s script may seem a little too poetic for modern ears but there is no doubting the filmmaker’s sincerity, a quality that Thomson complements so well.
Some of the most winning music in this score can be found in the dance-like rhythms of Cattle. There’s no crude musical onomatopoeia – though there is a Grofé-like imitation of hooves at one point – and in The Homesteaders Thomson mixes the martial trumpets and drums with snatches of banjo and catchy folk tunes. There is a sense of ease and contentment here which – to use a Hollywood analogy – is more George Stevens than John Ford or Howard Hawks. But even though this is not a hard landscape the timps remind us that with no rivers and little rainfall the settlers farm here ‘at their peril’.
The repeated trumpet calls and jaunty march rhythms of Warning and War and the Tractor are a reminder of conflicts past and present, not to mention the advancing legions of machines that ‘break’ the land. Judicious as always Thomson never resorts to musical histrionics, even at moments of high drama; just sample the wistful, bluesy sax in Speculation, whose growing dissonance dissolves into the strange empty harmonies of Drought. This pared-down approach is equally effective in Wind and Dust, with its swirling figures and distressed trumpets.
The earlier folk-like melodies resurface in Devastation but this time there is a hollow ring to the once reassuring tunes. Lorentz’s script is bleak indeed, describing the farmers and their families fleeing the dust bowls, with ‘no place to go and no place to stop’. This almost biblical exodus was to dominate John Ford’s equally bleak 1940 film of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Not surprisingly both films have been deposited in the US National Film Archive.
Lorentz made The River a year later, in 1937. The film, which showcases the dam-building and flood-prevention efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a much simpler, more direct narrative. That said, Thomson provides a stream of good tunes, with a thrusting Prelude and some lovely solo writing in First Forest and A Big River, depicting the mighty Mississippi. The music has an easy flow to it, the timps this time underlining the steady building work on the dams and levées.
The film doesn’t seem to have the dramatic subtext of The Plow, and Thomson’s approach here is best described as straight pictorialism. That said, he has an Ivesian knack for quoting popular tunes that would surely resonate with US audiences of the time. Sample the rollicking Cotton Pickers with its evocative banjo melody and distant trumpets, the latter a reference to the Civil War. And then there’s that sad little melody of the old plantations in Ruins.
In keeping with the film’s spirit of public information Logging and Coal offer an opportunity to trumpet the virtues of enterprise and hard work, essential to getting America back on its feet. Thomson uses snare drums to remarkable effect, depicting rafts of logs rolling down the river. He also quotes the jaunty tune ‘There’ll Be A Hot Time in Town Tonight’, very much as Ives might have done.
Yet even this simple narrative has a sting in the tail, with disaster in the form of Flooding. That Mississippi solo we heard earlier now sounds mournfully over a pulsing drum, a marvellous evocation of a drowned landscape. The futile efforts to hold back the waters are depicted in repeated, pounding rhythms, the skeletal unison writing of Requiem a grim postlude.
Unlike the first film The River ends on a more positive note, the waters finally ‘locked and dammed’. Thomson reflects this new optimism in music that flows freely and broadens into a simple yet spacious climax. This isn’t as much of a ‘melodrama of nature’ as The Plow, but at worst Thomson’s music is robust and workmanlike, at best highly accomplished and very evocative.
These films are now available on DVD (Naxos 2.110521) with an up-to-date soundtrack by the Post-Classical Ensemble. I have to say hearing this score has tempted me to go out and buy a copy. But if you just want the music –– this disc is as authoritative as it gets. With a warm, detailed recording and informative notes by Joseph Horowitz this is a very desirable issue indeed.
Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
The Plow that Broke the Plains by Virgil Thomson
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1936; France
Date of Recording: 06/2005
Venue: Omega Studios, Rockville, Maryland
Length: 26 Minutes 55 Secs.
The River by Virgil Thomson
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1937; France
Date of Recording: 06/2005
Venue: Omega Studios, Rockville, Maryland
Length: 28 Minutes 43 Secs.
Featured Sound Samples
The Plow That Broke the Plains: Cattle
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