Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to write a post for this blog about all the wonderful pieces of classical music that celebrate working.

The problem seems to be, there aren’t too many of them. At the same time – and this is funny – there is no shortage of popular music about working. Remember the song “Nine to Five” that Dolly Parton wrote for the movie of the same name? Well, that’s one example. Then there was the hit 1983 song “She Works Hard for the Money” that Donna Summer recorded.

And of course, there is the ultimate song about work, “Whistle While You Work,” from Disney’s 1937 movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” (A waggish friend of mine once described it as “Ronald Reagan’s vision of life in a post-union America,” but let’s not dwell on that. I mean, Scott Walker would probably like it too.)

Maybe Working Is Just Too Unpleasant to Sing About?

I supposed that is possible. But after some digging, I was able to come up with a playlist of music that pertains to working. A lot of it is quite beautiful, so working can’t be all bad. If you are a Classical Archives subscriber, CLICK HERE to access and enjoy the playlist.

Here are the tracks you are about to hear.

Track One: The Anvil Chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore

Ostensibly happy gypsy laborers (today we should probably call them Roma laborers) fill the stage, forging stuff on clangy anvils. We will hear the chorus and orchestra of La Scala, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni.

Track Two: “The Harmonious Blacksmith” from George Frideric Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in E

Here is a piece that depicts someone who seems to be happy about working. Why is this blacksmith called harmonious? I am not certain, but I think it has something to do with a legend about the Greek philosopher and music theorist, Pythagoras. According to legend, Pythagoras once walked by a blacksmith’s shop and noticed that the sounds coming from the anvils inside were remarkably pleasant. So he weighed the anvils and discovered a numerical relationship between them. (When one anvil weighed half what another one weighed and they were both struck the result was an octave; when one weighted two-thirds of what another one weighed and they were both struck the result was a fifth.) So in that way, Pythagoras discovered the numerical secrets of acoustics. It’s a great story, right? This recording of the Handel work comes from harpsichordist Martin Souter.

Track Three: “Der Schiffer” (“The Boatman”), song by Franz Peter Schubert

I have always loved this Schubert song, set to a text by the poet Johan Baptist Mayrhofer. Here is a translation . . .

In wind and rough weather I ply the river,
My clothes drenched through in the downpour.
I lash at the waves with mighty blows,
Hoping for a happy day.
The waves drive my creaking boat ahead,
A whirlpool threatens, and so do the rocks.
Boulders hurtle down from the craggy heights,
And trees moan like sorrowful ghosts.
This is the way I want it to be.
I hate a life that unfolds comfortably.
Even if the waves swallowed my groaning boat,
I would always praise the path I have chosen!
So let the waters roar with rage,
A blissful fountain of joy springs in my heart,
Refreshing my nerves.
I stand against the storm with defiant chest!
Oh heavenly, heavenly joy!

This recording features the German baritone Dietrich Henschel accompanied at the piano by Helmut Deutsch.

Track Four: “Summ’ und brumm” (The Spinning Chorus) from Richard Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (“the Flying Dutchman”)

A group of women who spend time with Senta, the unlucky heroine who falls in love with the Dutchman, sit at their spinning wheels and sing this song. It sounds especially happy when juxtaposed against all the bad stuff that happens later on in this musical melodrama. Like when Senta throws herself off a cliff, never a happy thing. But we can still enjoy a little spinning happiness while it lasts.

We will hear the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Track Five: “Vois ma misère, hélas” (“See my misery, alas”) aria from Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila

In this scene, Samson has been fooled by Dalila, blinded by the Philistines, yoked, and made to power a gristmill by walking around in a circle. Not a happy scene. But soon he will get victory of sorts when he pulls down the temple and kills his tormentors, and himself too.

Hearing this glorious performance by tenor Jon Vickers lessens the pain somewhat. He performs with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Jean Fournet.

Tracks Six and Seven: “Notung, Notung!” (the sword-forging scene) from Richard Wagner’s opera Seigfried

Unless you know that “Notung” is the name of Seigfried’s sword, you might think that this aria is a meditation on existentialism. (It isn’t about nothing, it’s about Notung, get it?) In this scene, Seigfried is hard at work reforging his sword, and really seeming to enjoy his work.

This historic performance is by tenor Bernd Aldenhoff with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra conducted by Hans Knappertsbush.

And to Close Our Post Today . . .

Let’s enjoy this video of The Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore from the Metropolitan Opera.