This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust clocked in for a 2nd shift, to bring you a show about classical music and industry. Browse some laborious selections from our show "Worker's Comp" below.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Il Trovatore: 'Vedi le Fosche' The piece we just heard is widely known as the “Anvil Chorus,” but in his opera Il Trovatore, Verdi simply titled it the Coro di zingari, or “Gypsy chorus.” It depicts Spanish Gypsies hammering on their anvils at dawn while singing the praises of wine, steady work, and women. Though it is possible that anvils were used in musical ensembles as early as the 16th century, Verdi's opera helped fix them as a standard addition to the auxiliary percussion of professional symphony orchestras. Just over a decade after Il Trovatore, WAGNER called for 18 specially tuned anvils to depict the underworld dwarves in an orchestral interlude of his Ring Cycle. Since then, anvils have generally been used to represent industry and hard work in orchestral music. Because of their weight, however, many orchestras prefer to use a specially mounted steel bar that provides the same tonal quality as an anvil without the hassle of 75 to 500 pounds.
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 work site, Henry challenged the machine and won, although lost his life in the process. His tale has been turned into a folk ballad that resembles old “hammering” work songs, adapted here in 1940 by Aaron Copland as a radio score for CBS, and later published as an orchestral piece for young audiences.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) Nice work if you can get it Like many of George and Ira Gershwin’s popular songs, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is considered part of the Great American Songbook, a loosely defined canon of showtunes, tin-pan alley songs, and selections from Hollywood musicals that became standards for jazz and early pop musicians. The repertoire of the Great American Songbook was generally composed between 1920 and 1960. In 1937, nine songs written by the Gershwin Brothers including “Nice Work If You Can Get It” were used in the film musical A Damsel in Distress starring Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine. “Nice Work,” though, had actually been composed before the film. In the parlance of the times it was a “trunk song” meaning that the songwriters wrote the piece and filed it away to be used later should an opportunity arise.
Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain": I. Andante con moto 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 Second Symphony, subtitled “Mysterious Mountain,” after the conductor LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI gave a wildly successful premier of the composer’s First Symphony. The work premiered on television in 1955 and has since become one of his most famous pieces.
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 deck hands 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.
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.
Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues Social and political themes are very present in the work of modernist composer and pianist Frederic Rzewsky. He was particularly sympathetic with the struggles of the working class, and pieces like his piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated or his Four American Ballads use music to draw attention to the struggle of historically downtrodden people. His most popular of the North American Ballads, titled “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”, incorporates an old song sung by cotton mill workers as they laboured in difficult and dangerous conditions in cotton mills. The piano itself is made to sound like a cotton machine, and we can hear the tune struggle to be heard over the monotonous and perpetual dissonance of machinery. Modernist techniques like atonality and using the whole forearm to play tone clusters on the piano achieve this effect. The contrast between art and industry becomes an allegory of humanity vs inhumanity, and the piece ends uncertainly as to what will survive in the end.
Dolly Parton (b. 1946) 9 to 5 Dolly Parton is one of country music’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Tonight’s 9th round selections came from her 23rd solo studio album entitled 9-5 and Odd Jobs. The album was a concept piece about working and centered around her hit single 9-5, which served as the theme song to the 1980 film of the same name co-starring Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. 9-5 was a chart topper, reaching number one on the Billboard Country, Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts. The success of Parton’s song caused some confusion when Scottish artist Sheena Easton released a song also entitled 9-5 that same year. In order to avoid confusing the songs, the title was changed to Morning Train before being released in the U.S. Easton’s song about a woman who waits at home all day for her man to come home from work, went on to be her biggest hit.