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Top Five WPA-Commissioned Works You Should Know

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Label from a 16" WPA Federal Music Project Radio Division transcription disc

It’s ironic that the greatest financial disaster this country ever faced brought about one of its richest periods of public support for the arts. This week, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra honors the Works Progress Administration, with Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States. The song cycle, written by Gabriel Kahane, who will also perform with the ensemble, is based on the W.P.A.-funded American Guides, which employed dozens of writers across the country.

At its height, the W.P.A., through its Federal Music Project, also funded more than 16,000 musicians and almost 300 performing ensembles, and helped bring to fruition these five favorite projects from that era:

1. Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock

The most famous musical work borne by the New Deal is Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union folk opera. These days it's better known for two details: that a 21-year-old Orson Welles directed the piece and the drama surrounding its opening. Labor unrest caused the government to shut down the production, forcing Blitzstein and company to find a non-unionized venue across town. The actors performed from the audience to skirt labor laws, while Blitzstein accompanied the production at a piano on the stage.


2. Virgil Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains

Though he’s rarely associated with the populist movement during the 1930s, Virgil Thomson agreed to compose score for a pair of W.P.A. funded films, The River and more notably, The Plow That Broke the Plains, a documentary of the Great Plains by Pare Lorentz. Composed to accompany sweeping shots of the prairie, Thomson’s score incorporates American folk music into his modernist styles. He later adapted the piece into a more condensed orchestral suite.


3. Roy Harris & 'Let's Make Music' on WNYC

Another great figure of the Federal Music Project is the composer Roy Harris, whose Symphony No. 3, was called "the first great American symphony" by Serge Koussevitsky. Harris hosted a W.P.A.-funded radio program on WNYC, called “Let’s Make Music.” Over the course of 30 illustrated lectures, he explained the fundamentals of composition. The programs were later transcribed into an eponymous book.


4. Charles Seeger's Studies in Musicology

Our fourth selection isn’t a composition, but rather Charles Seeger’s trailblazing book Studies in Musicology. This tome started due to the Federal Music Project (Seeger was the administrator for the organization), which introduced Seeger to music in rural communities across the country. Though the renamed WPA Music Project, was shut down in 1943, Seeger’s studies continued influencing a number of academics and musicians, including his son, Pete.


5. Aaron Copland's Quiet City

Perhaps the American composer most closely associated with the Depression Era, Aaron Copland infused his music with a populist spirit, even if many of his works weren’t directly funded by the WPA. But it did provide aid to the Group Theater, which produced Quiet City, a play by Irwin Shaw set to Copland's score. The play didn't last more than a handful of performances, but Copland’s music did and it remains a staple of concert halls today.