, 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 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.
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1992