Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields released on CD

September 23, 2015

Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning oratorio for chorus and instruments, Anthracite Fields, will be released on Cantaloupe Music on September 25, 2015. Wolfe wrote the piece after doing extensive research about the coal-mining industry in an area very near where she grew up in Pennsylvania. Her text draws on oral histories, interviews with miners and their families, speeches, geographic descriptions, children’s rhymes, and coal advertisements. The recording features the Bang on a Can All-Stars and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, under the direction of Julian Wachner.

In returning home and “looking north – the left turn onto route 309, the road-rarely-taken – I delved into a local history,” Wolfe says. With her loving exploration of the place that seemed mysterious to her as a child, she sought 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.” Listen to a Studio 360 interview about the piece with Wolfe here.

The New York Times wrote of the New York premiere of the work, which was a centerpiece of the first NYPHIL BIENNIAL in 2014, “In Ms. Wolfe’s polished and stylistically assured cantata, the overall coherence of the musical material helped her expressions of outrage to burn cleanly and brightly.” This spring Anthracite Fields has its West Coast and European premieres.

Anthracite Fields is written in five movements:

“Foundation”: The singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. At the center of “Foundation” is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.

“Breaker Boys”: Based on local rhymes, this movement also contains 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”: 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 from 1920 to 1960.

“Flowers”: “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. In one interview she said, “We all had gardens,” and then she began to list the names of the flowers that illuminated their impoverished homes.

“Appliances”: Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. 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,” a stunning contrast to the blackened faces underground.

Anthracite Fields was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia through 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 and Heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

Julia Wolfe’s profound art ballad, Steel Hammer, was not conceived as a stage show, but director Anne Bogart was so inspired by the musical retelling of the John Henry legend that she wanted to give it this dramatic reincarnation with the six-member SITI Company at the University of Illinois (September 26), UCLA (October 23-24), Virginia Tech (November 17), OZ Arts Nashville (November 20-21), and BAM (December 2-6). All of Wolfe’s original music will be played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and singers Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn, and will include performances on wooden bones and mountain dulcimer, as well as step dancing. The music will be interspersed with texts commissioned from American playwrights Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor. Steel Hammer, a Carnegie Hall and Maria and Robert A. Skirnick commission, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and the studio recording, featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval, was released on Cantaloupe Music in 2014.

Anthracite Fields


Ashley Bathgate, cello and lead voice on “Breaker Boys”

Robert Black, bass

Vicky Chow, piano and keyboard

David Cossin, drums and percussion

Mark Stewart, guitar and lead voice on “Speech”

Ken Thomson, clarinets


Julian Wachner, conductor

Steel Hammer


Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn, singers


Anne Bogart, director

Original text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor

September 26, 2015

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

October 23-24, 2015

Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

November 17, 2015

Ellen Fife Theatre, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg

November 20-21, 2015

OZ Arts, Nashville

December 2-6, 2015

Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York

Anthracite Fields

West Coast Premiere

Grant Gershon, conductor

March 6, 2016
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Anthracite Fields

European Premiere


April 15, 2016
Konserthus, Malmö

April 16, 2016
The Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen