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Hyperion Records

CDH55169 - Thomson: Louisiana Story – The film music of Virgil Thomson
(Originally issued on CDA66576)

Recording details: October 1991
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Christopher Palmer
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: July 2004
Total duration: 67 minutes 46 seconds

'Hyperion's recording is faultless; the notes… are sagacious and rewarding. If your interest is in American music or in film scores, this is indispensable' (American Record Guide)

'Not to be missed' (Classic CD)

'Thomson's music is as American as apple pie and wonderfully evocative' (Gramophone)

Louisiana Story – The film music of Virgil Thomson
Grass: Pastorale  [1'27]
Cattle  [3'08]
Blues  [2'54]
Drought  [1'00]
Devastation  [5'42]
Sadness  [2'44]
Papa's Tune  [0'59]
A Narrative  [2'01]
Super-sadness  [1'42]
Walking Song  [1'45]
The Squeeze Box  [3'25]
Fugue No 1  [1'35]
Fugue No 2  [3'30]
Joyous Pastorale  [2'08]
Finale  [4'18]
Other recommended albums
'Elgar: Cathedral Music' (CDH55147)
Elgar: Cathedral Music
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55147  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When we think of American films we think primarily of Hollywood, yet not one of the scores contained in this collection—the work of one of America’s most distinguished composers—was written for a Hollywood film. Thereby hangs a curious tale. Hollywood’s earliest sound-film composers rarely had the kind of academic or intellectual credentials that Thomson had (Harvard and Nadia Boulanger). The background of men like Steiner, Newman and Victor Young tended to be Broadway or Tin Pan Alley: their context was that of ‘commercial’ music of one sort or another. And ‘commercial’ music is generally conservative in style: Broadway musicals grew out of nineteenth-century operetta; pop songs and light music had to draw on a vocabulary that ordinary people could readily understand and relate to. So with early Hollywood film scores and their composers. Men like Copland and Thomson didn’t fit that mould. Nineteenth-century European romanticism held little attraction for them. They were more interested in the authentic musical past of their own country, in creating a music that was genuinely American, American in its essentials. Hollywood didn’t understand that sort of ‘American’ music, didn’t want it; and, of course, California was so geographically remote from other major American cultural centres that major cultural figures—the Thomsons, Coplands, Bernsteins—could never have worked there on a regular basis, even if they’d been invited. And Hollywood studios were never really happy with ‘moonlighters’: they didn’t fit into the system. The result was that Copland did a mere handful of Hollywood movies, Bernstein only one (On the Waterfront), and Thomson none at all. And there were dozens of other prominent, excellent, American composers who might have excelled in the film-score medium but who, the situation being what it was, never got the chance to try.

The films whose music is recorded here were produced independently of Hollywood; and, in the case of the first, The Plow that Broke the Plains, Hollywood was far from happy about it. Conductor Richard Kapp has explained how this and other films of its ilk originated in the attempts of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ government to solve the crushing series of economic problems that beset America in the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression. Underlying the government’s unparalleled participation in subsidizing musicians, film-makers, graphic artists, writers, actors and others was a simple hypothesis. The nation was in the midst of unprecedented hard times and endemic unemployment. Surely the country stood to gain more by making use of its citizens’ talents—even if these appeared to have no value in the world of commerce—than it could by putting them on the dole and thus paying them not to work!

So it was that the Works Progress Administration, Farm Services Administration and other federal agencies and programmes assumed a responsibility for nurturing American composers, dramatists, writers and artists. One of them, the film-maker Pare Lorentz, in 1936 wrote and directed his first documentary for the Farm Services Administration. This was The Plow that Broke the Plains. (Lorentz had managed to persuade Roosevelt to create a US Government Film Service.) The film was made on a tiny budget, a venture without antecedents. It was intended as a documentation of the Dust Bowl, the agricultural disaster that had befallen the Plains States in the midst of times that were already hard. It was to serve as a propaganda vehicle for the administration: Washington was finally taking steps to remedy the disasters that had resulted from generations of greed and abuse of the land. Lorentz’s creative team was integrally involved at every stage. Thomson’s music evolved with the film; sometimes the film was edited to the music, sometimes the music to the film.

When it was first exhibited, The Plow created quite a sensation and achieved a degree of acceptance with the general film-going public that exceeded anything its film-makers, the Farm Services Administration or Hollywood could have envisaged. Its popular success had a number of consequences. One was the decision to make a second film, The River, which addressed itself to the Mississippi and the government’s efforts to redress the damage done by man. (Thomson scored this film also.) Another outcome that no one had predicted was an outcry from the commercial film community in Hollywood which saw Lorentz’s efforts as unfair government-inspired competition in the commercial marketplace. Hollywood increased its pressure until the Film Service was disbanded.

The underlying theme of The Plow that Broke the Plains is that of American innocence and its betrayal; and Thomson is an archetypal American ‘innocent’—knowing, sophisticated, acutely intelligent but still paradoxically innocent, childlike, morning-fresh in his perception of the world. He discards post-Wagnerian hyperbole and egomania in favour of what Wilfrid Mellers called the ‘surrealistically childlike unsentimentality’ of Satie and his own grass roots, first and foremost Baptist hymnody.

In the spontaneous yet stylish way it bears and mothers popular idioms (including cowboy songs), the music of The Plow that Broke the Plains is pretty basic Thomson. The score prefaces each movement of the ‘Suite’ with an evocative superscription:

Prelude: Prologue: This is a record of land … of soil, rather than people—a story of the Great Plains. The 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas Panhandle to Canada. A high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams … a country of high winds, and sun … and of little rain …

Grass: Pastorale: The grass lands … a treeless wind-swept continent of grass stretching from the broad Texas Panhandle up to the mountain reaches of Montana and to the Canadian border. A country of high winds and sun … high winds and sun … without rivers, without streams, with little rain.

Cattle: First came the cattle … an unfenced range a thousand miles long … an unchartered ocean of grass, the southern range for winter grazing, and the mountain plateaus for summer. It was a cattleman’s paradise. Up from the Rio Grande … in from the rolling prairies … down clear from the eastern highways the cattle rolled into the old buffalo range. For a decade the world discovered the grass lands and poured cattle into the plains. The railroads brought markets to the edge of the plains … land syndicates sprang up overnight, and the cattle rolled into the West.

Blues: Then we reaped the golden harvest … then we really plowed the plains … we turned under millions of new acres for war. We had the manpower … we invented new machinery. The world was our market. By 1933 the old grass lands had become the new wheat lands … a hundred million acres … two hundred million acres … more wheat!?

Drought: A country without rivers … without streams … with little rain … once again the rains held off and the sun baked the earth. This time no grass held moisture against the winds and sun … this time millions of acres of plowed land lay open to the sun.

Devastation: Baked out—blown out—and broke! Year in, year out, uncomplaining, they fought the worst drought in history … their stock choked to death on the barren land … their homes were nightmares of swirling dust night and day. Many went ahead of it—but many stayed until stock, machinery, homes, credit, food, and even hope were gone. On to the West! Once again they headed into the setting sun … once again they headed West out of the Great Plains and hit the highways for the Pacific Coast, the last border. Blown out, baked out and broke … nothing to stay for … nothing to hope for … homeless, penniless and bewildered they joined the great army of the highways. No place to go … and no place to stop. Nothing to eat … nothing to do … their homes on four wheels … their work a desperate gamble for a day’s labor in the fields along the highways, price of a sack of beans or a tank of gas … all they ask is a chance to start over and a chance for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again. 50,000 a month! The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.

Louisiana Story, composed in 1948, is probably Thomson’s best-known film score, in fact one of the most popular of all his works. The theme of Robert Flaherty’s semi-documentary is again man versus nature, in this case the impact of invading oil prospectors on a young boy’s idyllic family life and his one-ness with his surroundings. Thomson made two suites from his Pulitzer Prize-winning score: one (the ‘Suite’) consists primarily of more dramatic and descriptive episodes, the other (‘Acadian Songs and Dances’) concentrates on the musical scenery and background. Note that there is no connection between Acadia and Arcadia. ‘Acadian’ (derived from an old Canadian-Indian word) means ‘of Nova Scotia’; ‘Arcadian’ refers to the district in classical Greece where life was, apparently, everything that people have ever wanted life to be. Yet in the present context the names could easily be synonymous. In Arcadia people were primitive in manners and given to music and dancing, and the name has overtones of pastoral simplicity and innocence. And how does Thomson evoke the people of Acadia? Through song and dance, in music of pastoral simplicity and innocence. The tunes themselves are authentically Cajun in origin (the ‘Cajuns’ are descendants of the French-speaking Acadians departed to Louisiana in 1755). Thomson found them in the folksong collections of Alan Lomax and his father, and in Irene Therese Whitfield’s Louisiana French Songs. Thomson’s way with these tunes, his blend of sympathy and sophistication, the way he makes his music observe, comment, evoke, involve, is uniquely his own. Mellers draws an interesting parallel between Louisiana Story and another classic film score, Vaughan Williams’s Scott of the Antarctic. He notes the use of unrelated major and minor concords in the latter, and the feeling of instability—wondering, but also fearful—they create. Then he remembers that the music to which the oil derrick floats down the Mississippi in ceremonious solemnity (‘Suite’ second movement, entitled ‘Chorale’) is built from concords similarly unrelated, harmonizing slowly flowing scales: ‘Thus is evoked the mingled wonder and fear in the small boy’s watching eye and listening ear. He, a denizen of that Acadian and Arcadian Southern environment, accepts wide-eyed and open-eared the clash between (moribund) rural innocence and (exploitive) industrial progress. Given the different context, the theme is basic Vaughan Williams; and Scott’s exploration would not have been possible but for a similar precarious equilibrium between innocence and experience.’

The last movement of the Louisiana Story ‘Suite’—the most dramatic episode in the score, and musically the most exciting (boy fights alligator and is saved only by the arrival of father)—is a fugue. The shapes of its principal subjects derive from the animal’s snapping, wriggling and writhing motions; there is devilry too (the augmented fourth, the medieval diabolus in musica) and it is typical of Thomson’s sophisticated innocence that he sees in fugue not what Barbirolli would have called a cerebral hangover, but a vehicle for passion and tension. So have many great composers from Bach and Handel onwards. And Thomson was always a willing contrapuntist: the suite from the 1958 Thorold Dickinson documentary Power Among Men is entitled ‘Fugues and Cantilenas’ and sits very happily in the immediate vicinity of the 1957 Lively Arts Fugue and the 1962 Joyful Fugue. Do the fugues in Power Among Men, for all their formality and consistency, look back in spirit to the ‘fuguing tunes’ of the late eighteenth-century New England hymnodists like William Billings? Since this was a salient part of Thomson’s heritage the answer is probably ‘yes’. And inasmuch as ‘cantilena’ is a term used for a passage of particularly sustained melodic or lyrical quality—vocal or instrumental—each of Thomson’s ‘fugues’ could legitimately be described as a ‘cantilena’. But all Thomson is really canto, song, singing: even ‘Ruins and Jungles’, ostensibly a mood piece, is really a chorale in disguise, and the ‘Joyous Pastorale’ is an instrumental dance-song.

Christopher Palmer © 1992

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