During the Roosevelt years, many different government projects were tried out during the New Deal period. The federal government even went into filmmaking. Pare Lorentz, a maker of documentaries, was hired to direct some films for the newly created Resettlement Administration.
His first film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, was very well received. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Virgil Thomson was hired to write the score. The film shows life in the Great Plains during the 1930s. He later made a movie called The River, which shows the various activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
As a life-long conservative, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the FDR administration. However, I like the score to The Plow That Broke The Plains very much. Virgil Thomson liked to use folk songs and Baptist hymns in his work. He was born and raised in Kansas City, MO to a family with a long history in Missouri. He studied under Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the same teacher that taught Aaron Copland and legions of American composers. One of Boulanger’s last prominent American students was the composer Philip Glass. While Lorentz’s films may not be regularly played, Thomson’s score is still played in concerts. It is a wonderful piece of music and well-worth hearing.
Despite having studied with Boulanger, Thomson was influenced by the French composer Erik Satie, whose simple and direct approach to music making Thomson much admired. Thomson would go on to be a very prominent critic and writer on music, in addition to being a rather prolific composer. He later wrote some operas with libretti by none other than Gertrude Stein.