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Virgil Thomson

Suite from The Plow that Broke the Plains

Thomson's 1936 score marked his first collaboration with documentary film maker Pare Lorentz. For me, it's the Thomson score that works best with the film it was intended for – better than the more popular suites from The River and Louisiana Story – although it does not necessarily contain finer music. In 1942, Thomson extracted a six-movement orchestral suite, omitting several substantial sections. This is the version most often heard.

In this piece, Thomson continues to invent modern musical Americana, work that began with the Symphony on a Hymn Tune and to some extent culminated in the music for Louisiana Story. His work, successful in its own right, had probably its greatest consequences in Aaron Copland's ballets of the late Thirties and early Forties.

Thomson's concert suite consists of six movements: "Prelude," "Pastorale (Grass)," "Cattle," "Blues (Speculation)," "Drought," "Devastation." Its spare textures give off complex emotional vibes. Thomson ties his music to the film's images, rather than to emotional states – a film composer's usual anchor. In he concert hall, this method leads to a curious impersonality or objectivity, and one can instructively compare Thomson's use of "I Ride an Old Paint" and "Streets of Laredo" (from the third movement) to Copland's in the ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid, respectively. Copland subjects the tunes to major transformations. In both cases, they establish moods: night around the campfire and the bustle of a Western street. Thomson lets the tunes speak for themselves: he varies mainly through highly imaginative orchestration and through juxtaposition. The tune becomes iconographic, a glyph, and Thomson relies on our own history with the tune for the emotional effect, rather than on his manipulation.

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996