Compact Discoveries®
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2008 by Fred Flaxman

Program 135
"Score 2 for Virgil"

MUSIC:
Virgil Thomson: “Speculation (Blues)” from The Plow that Broke the Plains performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez [Naxos 8.559291, track 7]
[under the following]

Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman. For the next hour let’s explore together excerpts from two famous Depression era film scores by the American composer, Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains from 1936 and The River from 1937. Logically enough, I’m calling this hour “Score 2 for Virgil.”

MUSIC:
fades out

Thomson, who lived from 1896 until 1989, was from Kansas City, Missouri. He attended Harvard University, and his tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped create a strong desire to return there. He made that particular dream come true, eventually studying with Nadia Boulanger and becoming a fixture of Paris in the twenties. He became a friend of the writer Gertrude Stein, who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him.

Following the publication of his book The State of Music he moved to New York City, where he became a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 through 1954. His music reviews were noted for their wit. For example, his famous definition of music: "that which musicians do."

In the 1930s, Virgil Thomson worked as a theater and film composer. His most famous works for theater are two operas with libretti by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts -- in which he used an all-black cast -- and The Mother of Us All. He also wrote incidental music for Orson Welles' Depression-era production of Macbeth, which was set in the Caribbean.

The Plow That Broke the Plains was his first film commission. It was sponsored by the United States Resettlement Administration, which also sponsored The River. In 1949 Thomson won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his film score for Louisiana Story.

In 2005 the Post-Classical Ensemble of Washington, D.C., conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, recorded the world première recordings of the complete film scores of both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. Naxos issued the recordings on a DVD, accompanying restored copies of both films, and on CD. I’ll tell you more about both films later, but first let’s listen to excerpts from this all-digital recording of Virgil Thomson’s score to Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film, The Plow that Broke the Plains.

MUSIC:
Virgil Thomson: excerpts from The Plow that Broke the Plains performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez [Naxos 8.559291].

Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducted the Post-Classical Ensemble of Washington, D.C., in excerpts from Virgil Thomson’s film score for The Plow that Broke the Plains. The 1936 film was commissioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” Administration. It was the first film ever created by the United States Government for commercial release and distribution.

The score broke new ground in seamlessly marrying pictorial imagery, symphonic music, and poetic free verse. However artistically it was done, The Plow that Broke the Plains was, nevertheless, government propaganda, and Hollywood barred the film from its distribution system. But New York’s Rialto Theatre showed it anyway, and it was cheered nightly. Public demand prevailed and eventually over 3,000 of the 14,000 commercial movie theaters in the U.S. screened The Plow that Broke the Plains to enthusiastic reviews.

The Baltimore Sun, for example, 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.”

The Naxos CD I am playing excerpts from during this hour contains the first complete recordings of both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River since Alexander Smallens conducted the soundtracks. The new recordings were made by the Post-Classical Ensemble of Washiington, D.C., which was co-founded in 2003 by its conductor, Angel Gil-Ordóñez and Joseph Horowitz. The Post-Classical Ensemble is known for its innovative programming, which, like the Compact Discoveries radio series, regularly mixes classsical music with folk song, dance, film music and commentary. Gil-Ordónez was formerly associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Spain. He is now Director of Orchestral Studies at Wesleyan University and Music Director of the Wesleyan Ensemble of the Americas.

You are listening to “Score 2 for Virgil” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[optional one-minute break not included in the total timing of the program]

The River was selected as the best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival, beating out a more famous propaganda film from Nazi Germany: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.

The River was a critical and commercial success. Paramount Pictures distributed it nationally. Poet James Joyce called Lorentz’s script “the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years.” It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Let’s listen to excerpts from this complete recording of the film score to The River now, with the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

MUSIC:
Virgil Thomson: excerpts from The River performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez [Naxos 8.559291]

Excerpts from the complete Naxos recording of Virgil Thomson’s film score to The River. The Post-Classical Ensemble was conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

That brings this hour of “Score 2 for Virgil” on Compact Discoveries to a close. I hope you have enjoyed this music. If so, or if you tuned in late and missed some of the selections, you can stream them on demand at your convenience. This was program number 135. You’ll find links to listen to almost all Compact Discoveries programs at the Compact Discoveries web site: www.compactdiscoveries.com. This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening.

MUSIC: Virgil Thomson: “Speculation (Blues)” from The Plow that Broke the Plains performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez [Naxos 8.559291, track 7]

This Compact Discoveries program is a presentation of WPVM, Asheville, North Carolina, a broadcast service of the Mountain Area Information Network.

Program Ends at 57:52
 
  ©2008 Compact Discoveries