‘Fire in My Mouth’: Julia Wolfe’s choral response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
Police or fire officials placing Triangle Shirtwaist fire victims in coffins, March 25, 1911 / Library of Congress (Public domain)

Great tragedy often inspires great art. Songs have been written about the March 25, 1911, fire that broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in lower Manhattan near NYU and Washington Square, and it has been documented in books and other media. Now composer Julia Wolfe turns her attention to this sad, and entirely preventable event that ended the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant girls. She has written nothing less than a modern, secular proletarian Requiem.

Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her choral work Anthracite Fields, about the coal miners of Eastern Pennsylvania, and was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship the following year. A teacher of composition at NYU, she is a co-founder and co-artistic director of the innovative New York City music collective Bang on a Can.

Fire in My Mouth was a commission from the New York Philharmonic, which premiered the work under conductor Jaap Van Zweden on January 24, 2019. The orchestra was joined by the women and girls of two choral ensembles—the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, director) and The Crossing (Donald Nally, artistic director), a multiple award-winning chamber choir noted for championing new music.

Decca Gold has wasted no time in releasing a stunning recording of the work on CD.

Though the oratorio features only choral voices without solos, the words of individual women are incorporated into the work. Specifically quoted are labor organizers Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich. Other texts are derived from immigrant workers’ memoirs, such as Mollie Wexler, or from contemporary news stories about the incident. Lemlich years later recalled her activism of the early years of the 20th century, “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth,” which of course provides the doubly appropriate title to the composition.

Wolfe not only researched working conditions at factories such as the Triangle, but probed into the aspirational lives these young women led. Not part of the oratorio, however, is any treatment of the aftermath of the tragedy—how it inspired new fire department regulations (in 1911 ladders did not reach to the ninth floor) and new labor laws protecting sweatshop workers. A witness to the fire was the young Frances Perkins, who would later become a groundbreaking New Deal Labor Secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first woman Cabinet member. The Italian composition of the Triangle workforce is less emphasized.

Though reviews of Fire were not uniformly glowing, I would personally endorse David Hajdu’s assessment in The Nation: “an accomplishment on a level unmatched in [Wolfe’s] previous work.” He called it “a monumental achievement in high musical drama, among the most commandingly imaginative and emotively potent works of any kind that I’ve ever experienced.”

One can only imagine Wolfe’s work as a foundational contribution to the music of a future socialist America, where the greatest orchestras and choruses of the land would spare no effort or expense to celebrate the majesty of ordinary people’s labor that helped build a country. But fortunately we do not have to wait until we have socialism in America: The CD is available now!

The original reviews spoke of an hour-long composition, but the CD clocks in at 49 minutes. In its premiere, the orchestra and chorus were accompanied by a multimedia visual display of period photographs of immigrants, workers, factories and urban life; perhaps that’s what added another ten minutes to the work in that iteration. Remaining from that element in the CD booklet are a few shots of the performers on stage, and in one spread, the projected names of all 146 victims of the fire.

Movement I, “Immigration,” recalls the coming to America in the oral history of Mollie Wexler, sung by the 36 women of the appropriately named group The Crossing. The text refers to a ten-day ocean voyage, but in essence it could be the story of immigrants in any epoch: “Without passports or anything/ we took a boat/ a big beautiful boat/ and off we went/ five of us girls./ It took about ten days/ we went third class/ with the poverty stricken/ and off we went/ five of us girls./ But it was lively/ everyone talking/ and looking/ to God knows what kind of future it was/ going to be.”

The orchestra captures the wide-open vistas of the ocean, nothing to see but water and sky, the sound of the ship’s foghorns and chugging engines, the waves, the ethereal light, a disembodied, unmoored time and space literally between worlds Old and New, between lives left behind and lives awaiting on new shores. Wolfe incorporates hand-clapping as an instrument, makes her chorus raucous with the animated conversation, and ends the movement quietly, expectantly, with no answers to what “was going to be.” She partakes of certain minimalist techniques popularized by such composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

The second movement, “Factory,” reminds a listener of the work of Soviet composer Alexander Mosolov (1900-73), known primarily for his pounding, heaving orchestral tone poem Iron Foundry, premiered in Moscow to celebrate the 1927 tenth anniversary of the Revolution. “Factory” is almost nine minutes long, but almost half of it is non-vocal. The orchestra recreates the sound of a garment factory in full throttle—machines humming, doors slamming (a possible allusion to the fact that the owner of the Triangle factory had locked the doors to prevent loafing and theft, which prevented the workers from fleeing the fire), and an increasing crescendo of noise. A certain clinking, clacking sound made me think of chains—the figurative chains that tied workers to their machines—but it seems that Wolfe had done her research and found some specific 12-inch shears made by Wiss that the choir members would wield both as a visual prop and as a descriptive percussion instrument. There is a striking photograph in the booklet showing the chorus holding these hefty scissors aloft and snapping them open.

In the second half of the movement, Wolfe introduces the chorus, who alternate between a Yiddish labor song, “Mit a nodl, on a nodl” (With a needle, without a needle) and a boisterous Italian tarantella, both obviously brought over from their respective Old Countries. Both songs are used with a foreboding of tragic irony. The Yiddish song relates that “my work/ is sugar sweet.” In the Italian song, a girl and boy scheme to exchange some kisses and explain her tardiness getting home because she had “to fetch some fire,” and if her mother accuses her of being late the girl can say “a spark of fire burned” her. The mother knows better: “It never was a spark of fire—someone kissed her.” In both cases, Wolfe tries to suggest that coming out of the extreme poverty of Eastern and Southern Europe, even a New York City factory job with real wages could feel “sweet” and full of the promise of happiness. The movement ends dreamlike, oblivious of the terrors to come.

The third movement, “Protest,” begins with a long passage featuring the repeating words “I want to”—talk, look like, sing, walk, dream, etc. “like an American”—reflecting the desire to integrate and assimilate, but ending darkly: “Hurt like an American/ Bleed like an American/ Burn like, burn like, burn like, burn.” This movement recalls that sweatshop workers had already begun to organize themselves, and quotes a 1909 speech by Clara Lemlich (1886-1982): “I want to say a few words./ I am a working girl./ One of those striking against intolerable conditions.” Lemlich joined the Communist Party in the 1920s and remained a member until she died in Los Angeles at the age of 96.

Wolfe has an affinity for lists: In Anthracite Fields several passages recite names, flowers and appliances. In Fire in My Mouth she returns to habit and has a long list of job titles—38 by my count—each one a different skill and task employed in a garment factory of that era. Presumably many of these workers could perform several if not all of these jobs on a garment of their own design, but on the factory assembly line they were reduced to being mere “hands” doing the same alienating, repetitive task all day.

This movement  ends with the Lemlich quote about “fire in my mouth” and the girls’ choir singing the word “fire” many times, as warning and alarm—each time, it would seem, a premonition of the hundreds of factory fires that would come decade after decade in unregulated industry after industry.

The apotheosis of the oratorio comes in “Fire,” Movement IV, the longest. The girls’ choir sings, “I, I, I, cry, cry, cry, fire, fire, fire,” the painful long vowels spelling out fear and distress: AYE, AYE, AYE. The flames start at the trail of a woman’s dress, spread to her hair, creeping and sweeping quickly through the factory floor.

Adapted from an eyewitness account, Wolfe includes a sweet moment of tender love, a reminder of the promise of life in the two folk songs of Movement II. The women sing, “Those of us who were looking,/ saw her put her arms about him/ and kiss him./ And then he dropped her into space./ Then quick as a flash, he jumped.” The orchestra crashes into powerful thumps as the bodies land on the pavement below. This passage is a powerful “Liebestod” moment, the unity of love and death that artists throughout history have commemorated in their work: The expression comes from Wagner’s final portion of Tristan und Isolde, the great lovers divided by destiny who could only be united in death. The scene also recalls the final moments of Francis Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” where in the last scene, set during the French Revolution, the guillotine thuds on each of the Carmelite nuns who go to their deaths as martyrs. The martyrs of Fire in My Mouth are victims of the Industrial Revolution, the heartless, soulless expression of 19th- and 20th-century capitalism. We have not yet seen the end of such sacrifices to Mammon: They occur every day somewhere in the world.

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) has the last word on the subject: “I would be a traitor/ to those poor burned bodies,” she addressed the crowd at a Metropolitan Opera House memorial to the shirtwaist victims on April 2, 1911, “if I were to speak/ of good fellowship./ I have tried you good people of the public,/ and I have found you wanting.” Cleverly, Wolfe has brought us back to the “want” theme of Movement III, addressing the listeners as though we might have been in the opera house that day in 1911. Are we not all “wanting” to some degree?

And then the composer, as she did in her coalminers’ oratorio, concludes with tolling bells and a choral recitation of the 146 names of the workers who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the names tumbling over one another, barely distinguishable, Jewish names next to Italian names in alphabetical order, Gerstein followed by Giannattasio, Stein and Stellino, a few men’s names among them, the masses who in the end are the true subject of history.

At first I thought the program booklet was kind of padded, with longish biographies, a two-page spread on the history of the New York Philharmonic and other features. Then it occurred to me: The program lists by name every member of the orchestra and the instrument they play, every singer in The Crossing and in the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and every person involved in the recording. Let these artists and professionals not go down unrecognized for the work they do!

This is conscious music-making for our age. Alas, the world is full of people’s history waiting to be similarly immortalized. Julia Wolfe has made an eminent start that in no way compromises her esthetic standards.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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