Top 5 Odes to the Working Man (and Woman)

Monday, August 30, 2010

God, love, art and nobility are each subjects worthy of great music and countless works have been dedicated to them. But throughout history, composers have also recognized and celebrated working men and women. In honor of Labor Day, here are the Top 5 Odes to the Working Person.

1. In 1942, Cinncinnati orchestra conductor Eugene Goosens decided to promote patriotism in wartime America by commissioning ten stirring fanfares. Goosens, an Englishman, scheduled one of them to premiere on tax day, as an ode to the American taxpayer. Alex Ross later incorrectly stated in The Rest Is Noise that Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man was actually inspired by Vice President Henry Wallaces declaration that the 20th century will be the century of the common man. This mistake didn't bother, but actually rather amused, Copland.

2. Before he was caught in the complex web of Soviet politics, seeking state approval to write and perform his music, Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 2 (To October) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution and the rise of the Russian peasants. The piece progresses from a depiction of an agrarian society to a factory whistle ushering in industry, the Bolsheviks and the triumph of the proletariat.

3. Brahms broke with tradition when he composed A German Requiem. Not only was the text in German from passages in the Lutheran Bible rather than the Latin funeral liturgy, it made no mention of Christ. Coming from a Protestant background, Brahms concentrated on the toil of the living and virtue of hard work instead of salvation in the afterlife. The work has been cited as a means for Brahms to cope with the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann.

4. Taking inspiration as well as instrumentation and a theme or two from Copland's Fanfare, Joan Tower composed her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman in 1986 for adventurous women who take risks and dedicated it to one of the hardest working female conductors in music, Marin Alsop. Tower eventually wrote a series of four fanfares.

5. In 2000, the University of Wisconsin premiered David Bishop's Opera Esperanza, based on the 1954 film, Salt of the Earth. The story tells of the success of immigrant mine workers, who went on strike to demand better working conditions. The pro-union theme may have been strengthened through funding from the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO ( and the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

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Comments [1]

Michael Meltzer

In Grove's fifth edition, Brahms scholar Philip Radcliff attributes the inspiration for the German Requiem equally to the bereavements suffered through the death of Brahms' mother and that of Schumann,
"...both felt deeply."
It was thought by critics that Brahms should have won a literary award as well for his synthesis of so moving and unified a text, drawn from the German Lutheran vernacular bible and the psalms (i.e.: How Lovely is thy dwelling place is from Psalm 84).

Aug. 31 2010 09:01 AM

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