Friday, September 2, 2011

Five for the Weekend – A Worker’s Playlist

We are coming up on Labor Day, a holiday that’s means many things to many people. For some the Labor Day weekend is the final opportunity to head out to the beach or stoke up the barbecue until next summer. For others it’s a celebration of the dignity of labor and a day of rest. What music would be fitting for Labor Day?  I’m not talking about the music you’d listen to at the beach, but music that says something about workers and their labor. Here are some works about work. 

Nobody works as hard as a servant in a Baroque opera. The wily servant Serpina in Pergolesi's delightful little intermezzo La Serva Padrona works hard, sings some lovely ariettas and eventually wins a husband -- her boss!

Figaro may be the hardest working man in all of music. His opening aria, "Largo al factotum," relates the business of his day and how he is in constant demand. Robert Merrill is the superb Figaro on this recording.

Figaro advances a pay grade when he becomes the Count Almaviva's servant in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart's opera, based on Beaumarchais's controversial play about class, turns the worker - boss formula upside down as the servants (Figaro, Susanna and Cherubino) get the better of their masters. The Rene Jacobs recording is a thrilling, quicksilver reading of the opera.

In his The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw viewed Wagner's Ring through a Fabian socialist lens. I'll let the economists discuss Fabian socialism and just say that Shaw's essay is decidedly loopy, but enormously fun. More than any opera, the action in Das Rheingold touches on labor issues and exploitation by bosses. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are exploited by Wotan and the Nibelungs are treated as slaves by Alberich. Oh, there's some great music here too. Hans Hotter is a brilliant Wotan and Gustav Neidlinger a slimy Alberich in this recording from the Bayreuth Festival. 

Nothing settles labor issues like a full-out revolution. Sergei Prokofiev, like Shostakovich and Khachaturian, wrote a number of pieces at the behest of the Soviet politburo. These works were musical propaganda but what Stalin wanted, Stalin got. Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary Of the October Revolution is not subtle, but it is fun. Written in 1936, the cantata is based on texts by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. As you might suspect, none of these gentlemen were Soviet versions of Lorenzo Da Ponte, so such lyrical phrases as "No class now stands on both sides of the barricades" must have presented some problems for Prokofiev. But Prokofiev rose to the challenge and wrote a wacky and irresistibly exciting piece that features chorus, orchestra, military band, accordian band and a speaker shouting speeches by Lenin through a megaphone. In a marvelous cameo, the great Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky gets to shout the Lenin bits. 

If you are a fan of film music you will love this work. The centerpiece "Revolution" movement features the chorus colliding with the orchestra while Lenin's speeches bellow away -- it's like the Battle on the Ice from Alexander Nevsky on amphetamines. Neeme Jarvi leads a superb performance and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus are superb.

What is some of your favorite music about work? We'd love to hear from you.

--Craig Zeichner

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