Julia Wolfe’s, Anthracite Fields, her Pulitzer prize-winning oratorio for chorus and amplified ensemble, has received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Wolfe wrote the work after doing extensive research about the coal-mining industry in an area very near where she grew up in Pennsylvania. Her text draws on oral histories, interviews with miners and their families, speeches, geographic descriptions, children’s rhymes, and coal advertisements. The recording features the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, under the direction of Julian Wachner.
In returning home and “looking north – the left turn onto route 309, the road-rarely-taken – I delved into a local history,” Wolfe says. With her loving exploration of the place that seemed mysterious to her as a child, she sought to “honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.”
The New York Times wrote of the New York premiere of the work, which was a centerpiece of the first NYPHIL BIENNIAL in 2014, “In Ms. Wolfe’s polished and stylistically assured cantata, the overall coherence of the musical material helped her expressions of outrage to burn cleanly and brightly.”
“My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.”
This spring Anthracite Fields has its West Coast and European premieres.
West Coast Premiere
March 6, 2016
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Grant Gershon, conductor
April 15, 2016
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Danish Radio Vocal Ensemble
Anthracite Fields is written in five movements:
“Foundation”: The singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. At the center of “Foundation” is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.
“Breaker Boys”: Based on local rhymes, this movement also contains the words of Anthony (Shorty) Slick, who worked as a breaker boy. The interview is taken from the documentary film America and Lewis Hine, directed by Nina Rosenblum. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee and served as chief photographer for the WPA.
“Speech”: The text is adapted from an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis, who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960.
“Flowers”: “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. In one interview she said, “We all had gardens,” and then she began to list the names of the flowers that illuminated their impoverished homes.
“Appliances”: Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. The closing words of Anthracite Fields are taken from an advertising campaign for the coal-powered railroad. In 1900 Ernest Elmo Calkins created a fictitious character, a New York socialite named Phoebe Snow, who rode the rails to Buffalo. It used to be a dirty business to ride a train. But with the diamond of coal her “gown stayed white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite,” a stunning contrast to the blackened faces underground.
Anthracite Fields was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. Additional support was made possible through the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Alan Harler New Ventures Fund, The Presser Foundation, The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.