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DVD: Plow and River

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
The Plow that Broke the Plains / The River, directed by Pare Lorentz, scores by Virgil Thomson, new recording by Post-Classical Ensemble
(released January 30, 2007)

Watch the movies online:
The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936)
The River (1937)
The National Endowment for the Arts gets so much criticism from certain quarters that it is easy to forget how much good work the agency supports. One recent example is this DVD project, which combines a version of two classic documentaries made by Pare Lorentz for the Department of Agriculture in the New Deal years, with a new recording of the musical scores composed for them by Virgil Thomson. The new soundtrack features Washington's own Post-Classical Ensemble playing the score. In his recognizable way, Thomson uses American hymn tunes that evoke the simple faith and austere lifestyle of the subjects: "Old Hundredth" opens The Plow that Broke the Fields and returns, in a sort of organ-grinder's dirge, during the dust storm sequence. "How Firm a Foundation" and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" (RESIGNATION) -- both from The Southern Harmony, a collection Thomson mined repeatedly -- are given a more dissonant harmonization in The River. The essentially bitonal harmonization of FOUNDATION underscores the misery of sharecroppers forced into poverty by the floods.

Other Reviews:

Anthony Tommasini, Music to Heal a Land of Dust and Floods (New York Times, February 25)

Roger L. Hall, Two Thomson Film Scores (Film Music Review, April 30)

C. Michael Bailey, DVD Review: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River (, May 19)
All the sound had to be created anew, including a new voice narration (by Floyd King), as well as the sound effects -- farm machinery, stakes being driven into the ground (synced with the score, too), logs halved by a saw. The imagery is striking, which makes one regret that Lorentz's career was basically over with World War II, although he lived until 1992. Indeed, it is incredible that Lorentz was actually able to get these films made, considering the opposition that he encountered from all angles. Some effects look hackneyed, like the map of the United States used to show the viewer the extent of the Dust Bowl in The Plow, but the films are shockingly iconic, presenting an American visual mythos as convincing as that created by Leni Riefenstahl for Nazi Germany, the film counterpart to the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine. Bonus material on the DVD includes an excerpt of an interview with Virgil Thomson (audio only), several narrations by George Stoney and Charles Fussell. Excerpts from the beginning and end of the original version of The Plow that Broke the Plains show how the film was extended to accommodate some music restored to Thomson's score. You can also listen to the original soundtrack of both films, both inferior to this new version conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

Naxos DVD 2.110521

The Post-Classical Ensemble has offered a sneak preview of their 2007-08 season: an all-Revueltas concert at the Library of Congress, a live performance of Copland's score to The City (also Pare Lorentz) with a screening of the 1939 film, Manuel de Falla's Master Peter’s Puppet Show, and the first American operetta, The Doctor of Alcantara. If you live in the Washington area and do not know the group yet, this is your chance.

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