Professor Julia Wolfe Wins Pulitzer Prize in Music

NYU Steinhardt News

Professor Julia Wolfe Wins Pulitzer Prize in Music

Assistant Professor of Composition Julia Wolfe has won a Pulitzer Prize for Anthracite Fields. The Pulitzer committee called the piece "a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century." Xiaoxiang by Lei Liang and The Aristos by John Zorn were the other finalists in this category.

Anthracite Fields, Professor Wolfe’s hour-long work for chorus and instrumental ensemble, depicts different aspects of the story of Pennsylvania’s coal-mining culture. She weaves a narrative of the miners: the boys who work above ground (called “breaker boys”); the involvement of the labor movement; the gardens where the miners take breaks; and the machines that are fueled by coal. Wolfe, a native of Pennsylvania, drew inspiration from letters and personal biographies to create what she calls “a unique art-folk ballad.”

Named after the technical term for the purest form of coal, anthracite, Anthracite Fields was written after Wolfe did extensive research about the coal mining industry in an area very near where she grew up in Pennsylvania. She writes, "In some ways the piece is a return to my small town Pennsylvania roots. In looking north – the left turn onto route 309, the road-rarely-taken – I delved into a local history.”

Wolfe wrote Anthracite Fields in five movements. In "Foundation" the names of the miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index from 1869-1916 are chanted. "Breaker Boys" features an interview with Anthony (Shorty) Slick, who worked as a breaker boy. The third movement is an adapted speech by John L. Lewis who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. The fourth movement, "Flowers," was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. In one interview Barbara said, “We all had gardens,” and then she began to list the names of flowers. Anthracite Fields ends with "Appliances," noting how even today, coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity.

Wolfe said, "My aim with Anthracite Fields is 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."

Anthracite Fields was released on Cantaloupe Music in September 2015, in a recording that features the Bang on a Can All-Stars and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street with Julian Wachner conducting. The West Coast premiere took place at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6, 2016, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times interviewed Wolfe about her prize, as did NPR, and NYU Stories.

Anthracite Fields received its New York premiere May 30-31, 2014, as part of the NY Phil Biennial at Avery Fisher Hall, performed by the Trinity Choir, New York Philharmonic, and Bang on a Can All-Stars. The New York Times raved about "Wolfe's polished and stylistically assured cantata."

The world premiere was given in April 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus, along with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Read the Philadelphia Inquirer review here.

Anthracite Fields was commissioned through New Music USA and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.