For some Virgil Thomson is seen as an American Satie,
writing music of great beauty and simplicity; for others he
wrote simple-minded, negligible, music. For many, though, he
is seen as being instrumental in creating a true “American”
sound in classical music. However he is viewed, he is an important
figure in the development of music in America, both as composer
and critic and, later in life, as mentor for younger composers
such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein.
After attending Harvard he moved to Paris in the 1920s,
where he remained until the start of World War 2, making regular
visits home. The 1930s saw him working in theatre – his most
important work here is the opera Four Saints in Three Acts
(with libretto by Gertrude Stein) - and film – both The Plow
That Broke the Plains and The River.
Written in 1936, The Plow was Thomson’s first
film score and has become well known through a short orchestral
suite – very attractive indeed – but this disk gives us the
first ever recording of the complete score. The ten sections
are full of Thomson’s down-home Americana, quoting cowboy songs.
The instrumentation includes rare visitors to the orchestra
– saxophones, guitar, banjo and, for the Church music, harmonium.
It is a sheer joy.
The River – which traces the history of the Mississippi River and argues the necessity
of a system of dams to harness water - was written the following
year, and was, ironically, completed shortly after devastating
Mississippi floods. The music has also become known through
a short orchestral suite. Again, Thomson writes in the American
vernacular, using jazz and folk music elements, but this time
the textures are more transparent and are more delicately scored.
As with The Plow this is the first recording of the complete
score, and fine stuff it is.
The Post-Classical Ensemble, a group formed in 2003,
plays superbly and makes the music delightful and entertaining.
This is the first time I have heard this music played with such
elegance, so many treat the music with far too heavy a hand.
The recording matches the performance, being clear and luminous.
Naxos has done both Thomson and us a great favour giving
us these fine scores in such excellent sound, and, as a bonus
it has issued both films on DVD (Naxos 2.110521) using this recording
as the soundtrack. Both issues are a valuable addition to our
knowledge of Virgil Thomson’s graceful art.