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Julia Wolfe

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Anthracite Fields (2014)
Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia with support from 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 & Heritage through Philadelphia Music Project.
Work Notes
Performances of Anthracite Fields must include the Bang On A Can All Stars.
Booking and technical information
Red Poppy
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
45 Minutes
Programme Note
Julia Wolfe Anthracite Fields (2014)
Composer note:
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania — Montgomeryville. When we first moved there the road was dirt and the woods surrounding the house offered an endless playground of natural forts and ice skating trails. At the end of the long country road you'd reach the highway — route 309. A right turn (which was the way we almost always turned) led to the city, Philadelphia. A left turn on route 309 (which we hardly ever took) lead to coal country, the anthracite field region. I remember hearing the names of the towns, and though my grandmother grew up in Scranton, everything in that direction, north of my small town, seemed like the wild west.

When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I looked to the anthracite region. Anthracite is the diamond of coal — the purest form. At the turn of the century the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania became the power source for everything from railroads to industry to heating homes. But the life of the miner was difficult and dangerous. I had been immersed in issues of the American worker — composing Steel Hammer, an evening length art-ballad on the legend of John Henry. For Anthracite Fields I went deeper into American labor history — looking at both local and national issues that arose from coal mining. I went down into the coal mines, visited patch towns and the local museums where the life of the miners has been carefully depicted and commemorated. I interviewed retired miners and children of miners who grew up in the patch. The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coal power, and an impassioned political speech by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers Union.

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.

In the first movement, Foundation, the singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. The list is sadly long. I chose only the Johns with one-syllable last names in alphabetical order. The piece ends with a setting of the very colorful multi-syllabic names. The miners were largely from immigrant families and the diversity of ethnicity is heard in the names. At the center of Foundation is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.

Breaker Boys follows next. There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The younger ones worked in the breakers, which were large ominous structures. The coal would come running down shoots of the breakers. The boys had the painful job of removing debris from the rush of coal. The central rhyme of this movement, Mickey Pick-Slate, is from the anthracite region. Others were adapted from children's street rhymes. In the center of this movement are 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 is the third movement. 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. Lewis was an impassioned spokesperson for the miners and fought hard-won battles for safer working conditions and for compensation.

The fourth movement, Flowers, was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. She grew up in a Pennsylvania patch town and had many stories to tell about her family life. She never felt poor. She had an amazing sense of community. Barbara talked about how everyone helped each other. In one interview Barbara said, "We all had gardens" and then she began to list the names of flowers.

The last movement, Appliances, ties the new to the old. I was struck by John L. Lewis' line "those of us who benefit from that service because we live in comfort." Our days are filled with activities that require power. Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. When we bake a cake or grind coffee beans we use coal. 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."

— Julia Wolfe

  • 31 MAY 2014
    New York Phil Biennial
    New York, NY
    Choir of Trinity Wall Street
    Bang on a Can All-Stars; Julian Wachner, conductor
  • 30 MAY 2014
    Anthracite Fields New York Premiere
    New York Phil Biennial
    New York, NY
    Choir of Trinity Wall Street
    Bang on a Can All-Stars; Julian Wachner, conductor
  • 27 APR 2014
    The Rotunda, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    Mendelssohn Club and Bang on a Can All-Stars
    Alan Harler, conductor
  • 26 APR 2014
    Anthracite Fields World Premiere
    The Rotunda, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    Mendelssohn Club and Bang on a Can All-Stars
    Alan Harler, conductor

An hour-long postmodern oratorio about the plight of coal workers a century ago, it featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Julian Wachner, and an eloquent video backdrop by Jeff Sugg.

Here Wolfe, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost (it begins with a long recitation of names of men named John who had mining accidents between 1896 and 1916 in Pennsylvania's anthracite fields) but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,6/5/2014
Anthracite Fields contains a raw indictment of the exploitation of workers, particularly the children employed in the mines as breaker boys, sifting through coal and debris with bleeding fingers.…For Anthracite Fields, the meticulous Julian Wachner conducted the brilliant Bang on a Can All-Stars and his own Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Evocative, but sometimes didactic, video projections by Jeff Sugg (mostly black-and-white portraits of miners, diagrams and maps of Pennsylvania mining country) added visual interest. Occasionally, they displayed parts of the libretto, assembled from oral histories, local children’s rhymes and an index of Pennsylvania mining accidents, which provided the chillingly long litany of victims with the first name John that opened the work. Repetition is also the foundation of Ms. Wolfe’s music, which was enlivened by her subtle writing for voices and the inventive ways she used the Bang on a Can players. The cellist Ashley Bathgate’s chanting of children’s ditties had an impish ferocity to it; the electric guitarist Mark Stewart turned a speech by the miners’ leader John L. Lewis into a rock anthem.
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times,6/1/2014
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