Happy Day After Labor Day! This week, Ether Game is reflecting on yesterday’s holiday by exploring the theme of labor in music. Put on your hard hats and work boots—it’s a hard-working show we’re calling “All In A Day’s Work”!
It's heigh-ho, off to work we go with our laborious playlist below:
- Aaron Copland (1900–1990), John Henry – “Work Songs”—that is, songs sung by workers to accompany the monotony of repetitive labor—have a long and varied history. In the early industrial age, as machines began taking over manual labor, these work songs began to change shape, blending with a new kind of industrial folk song that praised manual labor and those heroes who supported it, like John Henry. The legend of John Henry is of an African-American “steel drivin’ man,” known for his prowess at hammering holes into rock to make way for a railroad tunnel. When a new steam-powered drill was introduced to the worksite, Henry challenged the machine and won, although lost his life in the process. John Henry was likely a real person, although folklorists debate whether he was from West Virginia, Virginia, or Alabama. His tale has been turned into a folk ballad that resembles old “hammering” work songs, adapted here as a ballet in 1940 by Aaron Copland.
- Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Das Rheingold: Toiling Dwarves from Scene III – To depict the sound of “work,” Richard Wagner had to get creative. In this opera scene from Das Rheingold, the first opera in his Ring Cycle, Wotan (the ruler of the gods) and his servant Loge have descended into the underground lair of the dwarf Alberich, in hopes that they can recover the gold that Alberich has stolen. They arrive to find that Alberich has converted the gold into a magical ring that’s given him unlimited power, which he uses to enslave all of the other dwarves. To depict the toiling of the dwarves, Wagner created a chorus of 18 tuned anvils to be struck in rhythm. Anvils are not uncommon in the percussion battery. However, Wagner’s anvils were all supposed to be tuned to the note F, which is rather difficult to achieve. Regular iron anvils don’t seem to do the trick, so percussionists have experimented with steel plates and even custom aluminum tubing to get just the right sound.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Nabucco: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves ("Va Pensiero") – The work songs of slave laborers carry an extra layer of meaning. Not only do they help to ease the toil of enforced labor, but they also often carry within them hope for freedom. Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” or “Va, Pensiero” from his 1842 opera Nabucco was not based on any actual work song, but the slaves in the opera do have some basis in history. Nabucco was based loosely on the Book of Jeremiah, in which the oppressed Israelite slaves dream of regaining their sovereign homeland. This chorus of laborers became the true heroes of the opera. Their song “Va, Pensiero” may have even inspired the oppressed Italian nationals in their fight for unification in the 1860s. A decade after Nabucco, another worker’s chorus became a huge hit for Verdi: his “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. This lighter chorus features a group of gypsy blacksmiths at work at dawn, hammering at their anvils.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759–1791), String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, "The Hunt" – Although we tend to think of work songs as songs of laborers in the field, if we broaden our scope, we’ll find all kinds of music for all kinds of work. Take the hunt. Hunting has historically been a type of work (it takes work to feed your family), although by the 18th century, it started to evolve into a kind of sport. Cultures all over the world have developed music to accompany the hunt, and in Europe, that music had a distinct style. It included horn and bugle calls, drones, trills, and 6/8 gigue rhythms that resembled the sound of a horse’s gallop. All of these tropes would work their way into classical music, including this string quartet by Mozart called “The Hunt” because of its use of these hunting musical elements. Mozart dedicated this quartet to his friend Joseph Haydn, who also wrote music that invoked the sounds of the hunt.
- Sir Henry Wood (1869–1944), Fantasia On British Sea Songs – If we continue to expand our definition of work songs to mean any music that accompanied labor, then sea shanties would certainly qualify. The rhythm of the shanty helped to coordinate the movements of the deckhands hoisting sails. But they also created camaraderie and comfort on those long, lonely voyages out at sea. The sea shanty has a special place in British maritime culture, and so many of the most beloved and well-known sea songs have British origins. Conductor and composer Sir Henry Wood compiled many of these songs—including “Spanish Ladies” and “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”—and arranged them into his 1905 orchestral work Fantasia On British Sea Songs. The work became an integral part of the “Last Night of the Proms,” the culminating concert of the popular British music festival. Sir Henry Wood conducted the very first Proms concert back in 1895.
- Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964), The Cradle Will Rock – The initial 1937 production of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock was almost as dramatic as the show itself. It was sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project, part of the WPA, a Great Depression-era federal program designed to support the arts. Blitzstein was working with an energetic young production crew, including producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles, just as the two were founding their groundbreaking Mercury Theatre company. The show was set in “Steeltown, U.S.A.” all about Joe Worker and Larry Foreman trying to unionize against the greedy boss Mr. Mister. Its overtly political tone was very edgy at the time. Less than a week before opening night, the WPA shut down production supposedly due to budget cuts—although most assume it was to censor its pro-labor message. However, the show went on, with Blitzstein at the piano and cast members performing from the audience, so as not to break any actor or musician union rules.
- Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000), famous workaholic – When it comes to putting in the labor, some composers have worked harder than others. A composer like Edgard Varèse, for instance, has less than twenty compositions to his name, whereas a composer like Alan Hovhaness has over 400 surviving works. Hovhaness is said to have begun composing at age 4 and was writing Italian-style cantatas before he was a teenager. By age 14, he had decided to pursue composition professionally. There are certain themes that are present in many of his works, including light, nature, spirituality, and mountains. He received a commission to write his most famous work, his Second Symphony subtitled “Mysterious Mountain,” after the conductor Leopold Stokowski gave a wildly successful premiere of the composer’s First Symphony. The work premiered on television in 1955 and has since become one of his most famous pieces.
- Carl Vine (b. 1954), Descent (Metropolis: the Workers' View) – Carl Vine is considered one of the most successful Australian composers working today. He’s written symphonies, concertos, dance music, electronic music, chamber works, and music for film. His 1997 work Descent lives somewhere between an orchestral work and a piece for film. The music was written to accompany Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis, although an 11-minute edit of the film that Vine created himself. Metropolis deals with an elite ruling class abusing a mistreated underclass of workers living beneath the city. In Vine’s edit of the film, he eliminates all references to the ruling class, focusing only on the plight of the workers. The dark and brooding music that accompanies this edit highlights their harsh working conditions, and the vicious cruelty they’ve been reduced to after so much brutality at the hands of the ruling elite.
- Dolly Parton, "9 to 5" – Our final song comes from one of country music’s most beloved singer-songwriters, Dolly Parton. “9 to 5,” her celebration of the ups-and-downs of the modern working woman, served as the centerpiece of her working-song concept album called 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, and also as the title song to the 1980 film 9 to 5, co-starring Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three working women getting even with their sexist boss. “9 to 5” was a chart-topper for Parton, but it caused some confusion when Scottish artist Sheena Easton also released a song that same year entitled “9 to 5.” In order to avoid confusion, Easton’s song was renamed to “Morning Train.” Also, Easton’s “9 to 5,” about a woman who waits at home all day for her man to come home from work, had nearly the complete opposite message of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”