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Virgil Thomson

Suite from The River

Thomson's 1937 score for the Pare Lorentz W.P.A. documentary is, to judge from the number of recordings, probably his most popular work. In four substantial movements ("The Old South," "Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley," "Soil Erosion and Floods," "Finale"), the suite also exerted great influence on American music. To a great extent, the sound most associate with American concert music comes from Thomson. Aaron Copland called the suite a "lesson in how to treat Americana" and took the lesson to heart, producing his own "American" scores – Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring.

The River draws heavily on Walker's Southern Harmony and Thomson's own Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Thomson doesn't develop tunes, so much as juxtapose them. Development, when it occurs, tends to be the most blatant form of sequencing (the same stuff on a slightly higher or lower pitch). Once can make an analogy to Cubist collage. The method demands either great sophistication or great sincerity for success. Thomson gives both. The tunes are wonderful and his treatment, lean and muscular, tells.

The first movement is based on the beautiful shape-note hymn "Resignation" ("My Shepherd will supply my need"). The second interrupts "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" with a passage of teeth-jarring dissonance. The third, to me the most remarkable section ("Soil Erosion and Floods"), puts a single line over a long pedal in the timpani and later turns to a simple two-part canon. The finale, to some extent a makeshift for a traditional Big Ending (the film narration ends on a quiet note), takes up "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," a Rhapsody in Blue cadential figure, and "Resignation" again, in a splendid summing up.

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1996