A Battle Hymn for the Industrial Revolution

Before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families if they die.

That statement by John L. Lewis, the legendary leader of the United Mine Workers of America, forms the central movement of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, a five-movement choral work that received its world premiere in four performances the Mendelssohn Club presented on the weekend of April 26-28. Lewis made his impassioned declaration before a Congressional committee in 1947, after a mining explosion that killed 111 miners.

The boys who risked accident and death

I think it’s significant that Wolfe chose a statement in which Lewis casts himself as the spokesman for the entire society that benefits from the labor and peril of the coal miners. She could have highlighted a statement in which Lewis railed against the mine owners. Instead, she built the pivotal movement of her work around a testimony that emphasizes the relationship between the economic progress of the last two centuries and the sacrifices of the people who made it possible.

Anthracite Fields reminded me of Battle Hymns, the powerful setting of Civil War texts the Mendelssohn Club premiered in 2009. Battle Hymns was composed by David Lang, Julia Wolfe’s colleague in New York’s Bang on a Can Festival, and it captured the complexity of our relationship to war, from the ordeal of the common soldier to the rock-hard idealism of a one-line statement by Abraham Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master.”

Battle Hymns was a major contribution to the long catalog of art evoked by war. Anthracite Fields is a major contribution to a category that is so thin it is almost nonexistent: art inspired by the great saga of industrialization.

Anthracite Fields opens with the chorus chanting names taken from a Pennsylvania mining accident index 1869-1916. The chant is limited to miners named John with one-syllable surnames, but the chorus still intones approximately 400 names. A poetic section on the formation of the coal fields forms a bridge between the Johns and a shorter list of multisyllabic immigrant names like Santiarelli and Zamerovich.

The second movement turns to the boys who risked accident and death as they sat on planks and picked slate and debris from the coal flowing past their feet on conveyor belts. The fourth movement, after Lewis’s outcry, moves to a gentler subject — the flowers grown by the women who maintained the communities that supported the miners.

Wolfe’s fifth movement is an ironic commentary on Lewis’s words — a catalog of all the ways we use the electricity generated by coal, starting with “Bake a cake. Drill a hole. Go to the gym.” It ends with a railroad advertising rhyme from 1900, celebrating Phoebe Snow, a mythical character who enjoyed a clean ride when she rode to Buffalo on a train powered by clean-burning anthracite coal.

Unpredictable minimalism

Wolfe has chosen powerful texts and magnified their impact with creative, unpredictable musical effects. She and David Lang are both minimalists, but their minimalism produces effects that are economical, not unimaginative. In the opening section, the Johns repeated before each surname suggest the tolling of bells. The agitation of the Breaker Boys sequence is followed by a soloist who delivers Lewis’s speech in a contemporary folk style, singing into a microphone while the chorus repeats key phrases. There are a couple of places where I felt Wolfe inserted noisy instrumental exclamation points that were unnecessarily melodramatic, but they were atypical.

Lang’s Battle Hymns was originally presented in a special premiere at the armory of the First City Troop, with dancers, costumes, and other special effects. When Alan Harler repeated it at a regular Mendelssohn Club concert, it was just as effective presented as a straight choral piece. Anthracite Fields could meet the same test. The premiere was enhanced by a multimedia presentation that included images projected on a big curtain, but the music and the words can stand by themselves.

The coal miners commemorated in Anthracite Fields were the foot soldiers of the Industrial Revolution. Wolfe has given them the kind of hardheaded, unsentimental, wryly ironic treatment the best artists have given the legions who fight our wars.

For the original article, click here: http://broadstreetreview.org/music-opera/the-mendelssohn-club-premieres-julia-wolfes-anthracite-fields