• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 21: Virgil Thomson

This Labor Day, we’re honoring the American farm worker through the music of Virgil Thomson. While once a household name in American musical circles, Thomson is now a member of the “lost” generation that we’ve talked about before…you know, the large group of composers contemporaneous with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but spent the majority of his career in Manhattan. In his lifetime, he was as well known and regarded a music critic as he was a composer. Today, though, on the extremely rare occasion his music is performed, it is almost always the same piece: his suite from the 1938 documentary film, The River. That film, written and directed by Pare Lorentz, showed the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States; and its score, composed by Thomson, drew upon the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”

Two years prior to The River (so, 1936), Lorentz and Thomson collaborated on another documentary, The Plow That Broke The Plains, a film about farming in the Great Plains and the events which led to the Dust Bowl. Like The River, Thomson’s score highlights his understanding of and deep appreciation for American folk, popular, and religious musics...also, there's a banjo!

Thomson eventually compiled a suite from the film, performed here by the Symphony of the Air (AKA, the NBC Symphony after Toscanini) and Leopold Stokowski:

Happy Labor Day! :)

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