Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

April 22, 2015

Julia Wolfe descended hundreds of feet underground, into a dank, dark cavern with gleaming black walls: a Pennsylvania coal mine.

“You can’t believe people spent all day there,” Wolfe recalled Tuesday. “It was spooky, a little bit, but so fascinating, a strange kind of beauty.”

Wolfe’s visit helped inspire “Anthracite Fields,” a choral tribute to the state’s mining heritage – and, now, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music. The judges described her work as a “powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.”

“I’m a little stunned,” Wolfe, a music professor at New York University, said a day after her win. “I’m enjoying it, having a good time.”

Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, a choral group, “Anthracite Fields” recalls the hard work and sacrifice of generations of anthracite coal miners, whose toil yielded fuel for the industrial revolution and heat for cities and towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“I wanted to show the life and understand it from different angles,” Wolfe said.

That life was anything but easy: Tens of thousands of miners perished underground, and those who survived often developed black lung disease and other chronic conditions. The first movement of “Anthracite Fields” is a haunting litany of names – all with the first name of John – of those who died in mining accidents. An ode to the “breaker boys” follows, young boys hired to pick rock from coal inside gigantic processing facilities called breakers.

Wolfe, a native of the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomeryville who has lived in New York City for more than 30 years, was only vaguely aware of this history when she began her research.

She pored over books about anthracite mining. She became obsessed with ghostly, century-old photos of the breaker boys. She visited defunct coal mines in Scranton and Lansford – both of which now operate as tourist attractions – and spoke with former miners and their families.

One of her conversations, with Barbara Powell, the daughter and granddaughter of miners, led to a movement called “Flowers,” a tribute to the women of the coal fields.

“We were poor, so our homes were just basic,” Powell, who works at Scranton’s Anthracite Heritage Museum, told The Associated Press. “We did our yards up with flowers, and it made everything look so warm and inviting.”

Powell and her husband attended the April 2014 premiere of “Anthracite Fields,” performed by the Mendelssohn Club and the Bang on a Can All-Stars in Philadelphia, and came away moved. She said Wolfe – and the performers and production designers who helped bring “Anthracite Fields” to life – got it exactly right.

“It was just so captivating,” Powell said. “It did a lot for our heritage here in northeastern Pennsylvania.”