Wednesday, May 27, 2015

American Folk Found in Classical Music: Virgil Thomson

Music critic and composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) is another example of a twentieth-century composer who used American folk in his music. While Thomson didn’t use this nationalistic approach in his entire output, there are some great examples where he uses hymnody, marches, cowboy songs, and spirituals to convey that folk-American element. His wide harmonies that evoke the open plains are later seen in American works of Aaron Copland.

In 1936, film director Pare Lorentz approached Thomson about writing a score for a documentary film about the Dust Bowl—The Plow that Broke the Plains. Lorentz originally asked both Roy Harris and Aaron Copland to consider writing the score but, after personality clashes, he turned to Thomson who accepted his $500 compensation to finish the 25-minute work in less than a week!

The Plow that Broke the Plains was originally conceived silent and then the voice-over narrative and musical score were added prior to its completion. Thomson used various familiar American tunes throughout the score that audiences would likely have recognized at that time including “Laredo” and “Git Along, Little Dogies.” He also humorously used “Mademoiselle from Armentières,”a marching song during WWI, as tractors come over the hill, similar to approaching tanks on the battlefield.  Below you can watch the short documentary film with accompanying score by Virgil Thomson. 

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