Philharmonic Piece Inspired by Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Set to Debut

January 24, 2019

Julia Wolfe’s ‘Fire in my mouth’ focuses on 1911 factory tragedy and the plight of working women in the early 20th century


Composer Julia Wolfe, second from right, spoke with members of the public as part of a special event, co-presented with the New York Philharmonic, at the Tenement Museum earlier this month. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal By Elizabeth Yuan Jan. 23, 2019 2:09 p.m. ET

For years, Julia Wolfe would pass by New York University’s Brown Building in Manhattan on her way to teach composition at the school. More than a century ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied its eighth, ninth and 10th floors.

There, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out, killing 146 garment workers, primarily women and immigrants, in New York City’s deadliest workplace disaster until the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“I wanted to somehow represent who these women were. Not just victims. They were fighters,” she said.

This Thursday through Saturday, “Fire in my mouth,” her performance piece about working women at the beginning of the 20th century, will have its world premiere with the New York Philharmonic, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and the Grammy-winning Philadelphia choir The Crossing.

Thirty-six women’s voices will join those of 110 children, collectively representing the number of those who perished.

Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant and union organizer whose words inspired the name of Julia Wolfe’s work, ‘Fire in my mouth.’ Photo: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library

The 45-minute work—with movements “Immigration,” “Factory,” “Protest” and “Fire”—is inspired by the words of Clara Lemlich, the Ukrainian immigrant and labor organizer, who upon reflecting in later years on her early activism said, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth!”

A founding member of Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Ms. Lemlich had organized many strikes, including the largest of all, the Uprising of the 20,000. Begun in November 1909, the 13-week strike, involving thousands of mostly Yiddish-speaking women immigrants, protested long hours, poor wages and working conditions in hundreds of the city’s factories. Triangle, which was New York’s largest blouse factory and distributed 2,000 shirtwaist garments a day, was one of the lone holdouts to union recognition.

The fire, which had been preceded by protests that elevated workplace safety to public consciousness, led to the Factory Investigating Commission, which resulted in 33 new state labor laws, a model for other states. The chief investigator of the commission was an eyewitness to the fire, Frances Perkins, who would later become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor.

“The power of the collective voice is significant,” said Ms. Wolfe, who described the work as both a critique and a celebration of people who persevered and made change.

“Fire in my mouth” is the latest in her oeuvre to explore the American worker—and she expects a few more.

‘Factory’ Movement in ‘Fire in my mouth’

Ms. Wolfe, a MacArthur Fellow, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music for “Anthracite Fields,” which was inspired by coal miners in her native state of Pennsylvania. In 2009, she premiered “Steel Hammer,” which was based on the more than 200 ballads about John Henry, the African-American railroad worker folk hero.

For the New York Philharmonic, “Fire in my mouth” offered an opportunity to present a two-week program of concerts and events looking at immigration and what it has meant to the city. An archival exhibit, with artifacts from institutions across the city and state, looks at the Triangle Fire, as well as the immigrant stories of Philharmonic members themselves. The Philharmonic has also partnered with the Tenement Museum, and on Sunday Philharmonic musicians will perform works by composers influenced by their time in America.

“As you see waves of immigration to the city, so goes the New York Phil,” said the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, Deborah Borda.

Video and scenic designer Jeff Sugg arranged the visuals for “Fire in my mouth,” which includes original footage and images from the period culled from Cornell University’s Kheel Center and the Library of Congress. He previously collaborated with Ms. Wolfe on her piece “Anthracite Fields.”

Some descendants of the victims of the Triangle fire plan to attend the “Fire in my mouth” concerts. The work ends with the two choirs singing the names of all those who died in the disaster.

“I know the damage and trauma it caused my family through the generations,” said Suzanne Pred Bass, whose great-aunt, Rosie Weiner, a Russian immigrant, perished, while her sister, Katie, survived. Pointing to the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that killed more than 1,100 factory workers in Bangladesh, Ms. Bass said, “It’s not like these tragedies and abuse of workers isn’t current today.”

Thomas R. Lansner and some cousins will attend the Friday concert in memory of their great-aunt, Fannie, the factory forewoman from Russia credited with saving lives before losing her own.

Like Ms. Bass, Mr. Lansner belongs to the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which is nearing the realization of a permanent public memorial at the Brown Building and for the last 14 years has chalked the names and ages of the Triangle dead outside the homes where they once lived.

Two 14-year-olds, Kate Leone and Italian immigrant Rosaria Maltese, were the youngest to die in the fire. Rosaria’s sister, Lucia, and mother, Catherine, were also killed. The oldest victim was Italian immigrant Provindenza Panno, 43.

Not a year passes without the coalition holding a commemoration of the lives lost.