Wesleyan orchestra music director, directed Virgil Thomson’s original
soundtracks that accompany a newly-released version of The Plow that
Broke the Plains and The River.
Music Director's Ensemble Provides Updated Music for Classic Documentaries
Wesleyan Orchestra Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez
addresses the impact of humanity on the environment and chronicles the
settlement of the Great Plains through music on a newly-released DVD.
His Washington D.C.-based orchestra, Post-Classical Ensemble, provides the
soundtrack for director Pare Lorentz’s landmark New Deal-Era Classics
documentaries The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River
The dual-film DVD, released Jan. 30 by classical music label Naxos, features
the first modern recordings of Virgil Thomson’s original scores, performed
by Gil-Ordóñez 's ensemble. Due to a small budget, the original soundtrack
was recorded in one session with the poor sound-quality of the 1930s.
“What our effort demonstrates is that the music of Virgil Thomson is
extraordinary,” Gil-Ordóñez says. “The documentaries can not be fully
appreciated unless the music has the quality that it deserves. We
re-recorded soundtrack recuperating parts of the score that were neglected
in the original film, whose soundtrack besides was in very bad shape.”
The new restored soundtrack is already nationally-acclaimed.
"The Post-Classical Ensemble’s new recording of Virgil Thomson’s soundtrack
and the fascinating supplementary materials all enhance the historic value
of this wonderful DVD," writes Paul Boyer, editor-in chief of the Oxford
Companion to United States History.
Both The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River are artful
evocations Midwestern America in the 1930s that address the impact of
humanity on its environment and the use of the media to communicate
Between 1933-1937, the U.S. Government, under President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, enacted the New Deal programs with a hope to help the American
public recover from the Great Depression. Under the direction of the
Resettlement Administration, the government sponsored several public
relations campaigns involving photography, radio and film. The Resettlement
Administration paid Lorentz to film both The River and The Plow
That Broke the Plains, and Virgil Thomson’s accompanying soundtracks
rank among the composer’s greatest work. They set the trend in the 1930s and
1940s for a new style of film music.
The River, which was filmed in 14 states, tells the story of the
Tennessee Valley Authority and building dams on the Mississippi River and
its tributaries. It was named to the National Film Registry in 1990 and won
best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.
The Plow That Broke the Plains retraced the history of the Great
Plains and the abuse of the land that led to the creation of the Dust Bowl.
The film, described by historian Neil Lerner as “the most widely publicized
attempt by the federal government to communicate to its entire citizenry
through a motion picture,” received denunciations as New Deal propaganda and
was shunned by the commercial distribution movie system. Despite this
impediment, the documentary reached people in over 3,000 theaters
In The Plow that Broke the Plains, Thomson augmented the orchestra
with saxophones, guitar, banjo, and harmonium, and used cowboy songs to
depict the Midwest. Gil-Ordóñez mimicked this style.
Gil-Ordóñez first conducted the Post-Classical Ensemble in a live
performance accompanying these two landmark documentaries at the American
Film Institute’s “Silverdocs,” an annual documentary film festival in June
2005. With support from the Center for the Arts, Gil-Ordóñez again directed
the soundtracks with Wesleyan University Orchestra as a benefit for
Katrina's victims in November 2005.
“We spent almost one month in the studio to add the narration and the sound
effects, and look for a perfect balance because I never like my own
recordings,” he says, smiling.
Gil-Ordóñez, a native of Spain, says the DVD’s release could not be more
“The documentaries show a part of the history of this country essential to
understand the present times,” he explains. “The River is Katrina 80 years
ago. Who would have told us that Katrina would happen two months after we
recorded the music.”
The DVD, produced with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts
and the American Film Institute, is distributed in the United States by
Naxos of America and can be purchased online at
“I wish every young American might be exposed to these documentaries, and
that some politicians might learn that with imagination and art is how you
really make a difference in a society,” he says.
Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection