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The River : Work information

Virgil Thomson ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Philharmonia Virtuosi, Richard Kapp (Conductor)

This work

Work name
The River
Work number
1937-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Gregory K. Squires
Gregory K. Squires
Recording date
1989-05-10 00:00:00

The Composers

Virgil Thomson

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.

See also:  Satie, Copland, Stravinsky, Glass, Cage

Track listing

  • The Old South 0:39 min
  • Prologue 3:45 min
  • 3:44 min
  • Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley 4:28 min
  • Soil Erosion and Floods 7:50 min
  • Finale 3:42 min


The River was Pare Lorentz's second documentary film made for the U.S Resettlement Administration. It aimed to show the devestating effects of flooding in the Mississippi valley and won the prize for best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Lorentz's narration was also nominated for a Pullitzer prize.

Virgil Thomson's impressive score features traditional southern spirituals, cowboy and popular song, and quotes his earlier Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Such was the level of co-operation between Lorentz and Thomson that in some places the film was cut to match the music.