Anthracite Fields is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble by the American composer Julia Wolfe. The work was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club with contributions from New Music USA and was premiered by Bang on a Can All Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus in Philadelphia, April 26, 2014. It was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The oratorio commemorates the history of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region in what the Pulitzer Prize citation described as "a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century." Music critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times praised the composition as "an unforgettably haunting, harrowing evocation of the plight of Pennsylvania's coal miners, incorporating many musical styles and effectively shadowy visuals."
Anthracite is a form of coal that can be used for domestic fuel. The name of this oratorio, Anthracite Fields is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region.”
The entire piece consists of five movements:
- This movement honors those who died in mining accidents in Pennsylvania from 1869 to 1916. Wolfe intended to sing the names of victims but was alarmed by the amount. She decided to shorten the list by only including those with the first name "John" then a last name with one syllable.
- Breaker Boys
- In this movement, Julia Wolfe uses a speech by John L. Lewis who fought for safe working conditions for these miners.
- This movement was created and inspired by an interview conducted with Barbara Powell, the daughter and granddaughter of miners. In an interview, she stated, “We all had gardens” and began listing flower names.
- The words used in this movement were taken from a coal-powered railroad ad; coal during the 20th century was a fuel source for the nation, and this is the movement's theme. The movement ends with the story of Phoebe Snow, a historical railway advertising character, traveling to Buffalo while her "gown stays white from morn till night" – a quote from the railway company's advertising campaign.
Anthracite Fields runs approximately an hour and combines elements of folk and classical music. Its libretto contains various oral histories, speeches, interviews, advertisements, and other texts from the history of the region. On her inspiration and research for the composition, Wolfe wrote:
I was born in Philadelphia and am from a small town about an hour north of the city. When (Mendelssohn Club Artistic Director) Alan Harler called me about writing a piece I thought that I would look to the region. Where I grew up, if you took the long country road up to the highway, route 309, and turned right you’d be heading toward Philadelphia. If you turned left, which we hardly ever did, you would head in the direction of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton–coal country. We hardly ever turned left, maybe once in a while to go to a diner. So I thought that rather than looking toward the big city I’d look the other way. The Mendelssohn Club was incredible in setting me up with a guide to the region. Theater artist Laurie McCants, who has a company in Bloomsburg, PA became my guide. She had a library full of books on the region, about life in coal country. She took me to some amazing small local historical museums that depicted everything about the miners–from the tools they used to the medical facilities, to the disasters. For over a year I read a lot, interviewed miners and children of miners, gathered information, and went down into the mines. It’s a vast subject to cover, but powerful themes emerged and called out to be in the piece. Anthracite Fields is about this industry and the life surrounding it. The piece is not directly narrative, but looks at the subject from different angles. My intention was to honor the people that lived and worked there, this dangerous work that fueled the nation.
Analysis of "Flowers"
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The fourth movement "Flowers" is the brighter or less ominous movement of the oratorio. The form of the fourth movement could be argued to be in an A B C form. The entire composition is a minimalist piece making the exact transitions difficult to define. Minimalist pieces have great repetition and change chords within the piece slowly. It is much the case for “Flowers.”
The piece starts with a guitar playing repeated sixteenth notes and the vocal part slowly repeating “we all had flowers.” The instruments change slightly in rhythm for the entire first half of the song which is barely noticed. The changes are small and it’s usually a change in rhythm from playing on beat one to instead starting on a different beat. The vocal parts also change their rhythm splitting up the word “flower” into smaller beats. While all this is happening the chordal structure still remains in the same area. It isn't until measure 70 that a major change is seen.
At that point, the first thing to be noticed is the lyrics that now start naming off flower names instead of the repeating “flower” over and over. The guitar also returns in a new triplet rhythm giving the section a different feel from what was there before. This section also grows in small increments to the C section of the piece. The soprano lines start lengthening starting at measure 106 and keeps elongating the flower names ever so slightly until a change is heard at 123. Both soprano lines start holding their lines over two measures. The notes slow down much like how the beginning sounded but the lyrics and instruments are performing rhythms much different from what the listener first hears. It clearly a different section of the piece and continued it until the very end of the composition.
The rhythm throughout the movement shows a cycle. From beginning to end, the movement starts in longer rhythms but as the piece continues, the rhythms become more condensed, sporadic, and returns to longer rhythms in the end. The vocal lines “We all had flowers” and “We all had gardens” have longer notes such as half notes and quarter notes. For the word “flower” specifically, the “flo” has two quarter notes that are tied and “wers” is a dotted half note tied to a whole note. As the piece continues, that the idea of “flo” being shorter in rhythm while “wers” remains longer appears even when the rhythmic value of the notes has changed. As an example, measure 22 has “flo” being a tied eighth note to a quarter note and “wers” has a quarter tied to a dotted quarter. This pattern remains prominent until measure 34. The same motif from the beginning is still there, but the rhythm has been expanded on from previous rhythms.
By the middle of the piece, the vocal lines between each part becomes more rhythmically dense. As of measure 45, the only word sung is flowers. The voices sing “flowers” in two 16th notes with an 8th rest (constantly repeated) or split up the word and sing “flau”/“wers” in 8th notes consistently throughout the measures. The voices exchange these rhythms with each other creating an echo. By using 16th notes and 8th notes, the word “flower” is sung much quicker or even spoken. The use of the rhythms not only create an echo effect but also forces the listener to focus on the word. The sporadic nature of this section creates an idea of flowers blooming everywhere instead of just focusing in one place.
Measure 70 is when a list of flower names are sung. Notice that each syllable of the flower name is split into repeated quarter notes. This pattern continues until measure 105 when the quarter notes are dotted quarters. By measure 129 there are notes that are elongated through three or more measures. One noticeable elongated flower name is “forget-me-nots”. By measure 129, “for-get-me” is sung with a half note and then a variation of longer notes such as a quarter notes tied with a dotted quarter and repeated. The purpose is to focus on the idea of “don’t forget me.” As a tribute to the miners that have passed in an accident, the composer chose to elongate “for-get-me” to create a haunting effect and at the end wrap it up with “forget-me-not.” This movement is used to illustrate that these miners and workers should not be forgotten.
The piece clearly lays out that the tonic is in A minor. An example occurs in the beginning where the lyrics say “flowers.” In the syllables “-weres,” it is held with a sustaining A, clearly labeling the tonic of piece. In the vocal parts, when one line is in the middle of a phrase another line comes in, and creates a sustaining echo. In each of the vocal parts, it remains diatonic. In the beginning, the range in each of the vocal parts is only an octave from A3 to A4. Each of the vocal parts resolve on the tonic. Although, sometimes the alto’s resolves on 6th, which gives a minor-third harmony (starting on measure 23). Whenever the lyrics says "flowers," the first syllable is either down a 4th or 5th then leaps up to the tonic on the second syllable. Most of the dissonances in the vocal parts are whole step apart. Then in measure 30 the last syllable of “flowers” ends on a G. And then the song changes. In measure 34, rather than the vocalists resolving to the tonic through a 4th or a 5th they resolve in sixteenth tones a whole step apart. In measure 52, everyone sings staccato eighth notes and the dissonances are either are primarily a whole step apart, or a 4th and 5th apart.
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