Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains was the first film produced by the U.S Governement for commercial release. A documentary dealing with the Dust Bowl that was devestating the Great Plains, the film was made for a tiny budget, and faced opposition from Congress and Hollywood. When first shown in 1936, though, it met with widespread critical acclaim and a positive reaction from the public.
Lorentz was determined to have a musical score equal to the quality of the images, learning to edit the film himself so he could afford to hire a composer. Virgil Thomson, the only composer interviewed who would agree to work for the small amount of money left in the budget, produced a magnificent score.
Thomson researched the rural music of the plains and incorporated military marches and themes to lend the farmers an heroic stature. Such was the level of co-operation between Lorentz and Thomson that in some places the film was cut to match the music.
Thomson, born in Kansas in 1896, began his study of music at Harvard, and then in Paris where he trained with Nadia Boulanger, and where he also met Dadaists, Leonard and Gertrude Stein, and Cocteau, Satie and Stravinsky. After his return to the United States he worked as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. As well as being a composer of considerable talent, Thomson is equally admired for his sophisticated yet accessible writing, which aimed to introduce classical music to a wider audience. For his efforts in prose and music he has received many prizes and honours, including a Pulitzer prize, a Brandeis award and twenty honorary doctorates.
A witty and playful style marks Thomson's work, which was influenced by Satie 's ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony and humour. Sounds from Thomson's youth, such as Baptist hymns and local folk music, can be heard in his early works. In several of the consciously American pieces, eclectic fragments from other musical styles are melded in a musical collage. However later compositions are more cosmopolitan, and more spare.
Thomson is acknowledged to be a master particularly in opera and vocal music. Works of note include the powerful 5 Songs from William Blake, the beautiful Feast of Love, or Southern Hymns, a choral classic. He only composed three operas, but Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (both co-written with Gertrude Stein) are perhaps his most famous works.