The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What piece of classical music best celebrates Labor Day? And which pieces require the most work to play? | September 5, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Labor Day, 2106.

We spend so much of our lives working and so little of our art relating to that work. 

But there are exceptions, such as the great historic photo “Working” by Lewis Hines that is below.

Here are suggestions of work-related music and a listing from 2014 by the famed radio station in New York City, WQXR-FM:!/story/poll-what-music-best-captures-spirit-labor-day/

And here is a pie chart and a 3-part listing from WQXR-FM this year with music that pertains to labor as well as to the work needed to play a piece of music as well. Just place the cursor over the segment of the pie chart to see the title and composer:!/crowdsourcing/classical-music-labor-day/report/

working Lewis hine photo

WQXR usually broadcasts labor-related music on Labor Day.

Here is a link for listening via streaming:!/

The Ear guesses that other radio stations, including Wisconsin Public Radio and Sirius XM Satellite Radio, will do the same.

But feel free to leave suggestions that might have been overlooked in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

For example, The Ear thinks that the “Hammerklavier” Sonata and the “Diabelli” Variations by Ludwig van Beethoven qualifies as does the Symphony No. 8, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” by Gustav Mahler, the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. there are many, many others. It often takes hard work to make great beauty.

Anyway, tell us what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Labor Day!



  1. For me, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song “Old Man River” poignantly conveys the idea of hard manual labor.(listen to a dramatic rendition of it sung by Paul Robeson, in a scene from the long-ago movie “Showboat” on YouTube).

    In terms of musical work, the hardest choral piece I ever learned was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Dona Nobis Pacem” , performed last spring at the First Unitarian Society. Many of us found it difficult to learn, but the reward came about a week before our performance when all the pieces fell into place and we could hear its beauty.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — September 5, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    • “Old Man River”, especially sung by Robeson, a legend in himself, is an excellent choice!

      Comment by fflambeau — September 5, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

  2. I think Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” captures the spirit of Labor Day. But so, for hard workers like yourself, does “Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises.”

    Comment by Ron McCrea — September 5, 2016 @ 7:19 am

  3. Good question.

    I’m reading a fascinating book by Brian Moynahan called “Leningrad, Siege and Symphony; Martyred by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich” (2013: Quercus Books).

    Nominally, it is an account of D. Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony which could well qualify for your music for labor day.

    But it points out some fascinating things. First, the symphony was mostly written and first performed in Kuibyshev, Russia on 5 March, 1942, with Shostakovitch in attendance, NOT in Leningrad. This city was far away from Leningrad and its siege because the composer was considered an “elite” and an asset for propaganda purposes by Joseph Stalin; hence he was whisked well away from danger and all those pictures of him posing as a “fireman” during the siege are just public relations nonsense.

    The real heroes of the symphony where the players in the Leningrad symphony. Many of them (unlike DS who was moved out and pampered) died of hunger, starvation, or repression from the Soviets (and from bombing from the Nazis). The group that performed the piece in Leningrad had shrunk through deaths and starvation from about 100 to 16 and the symphony had to recruit lots of new people to play it. At the first rehearsal (scheduled to last 3 hours) they were so weak from starvation they could only play (in below freezing temperatures) for 15 minutes. They had to survive against not only Adolph and the Nazis, but Uncle Joe and the Soviets. They played in fur hats, gloves, and coats because there was no heat in the hall.

    So in this case, the workers were the players and they really deserve accolades. The music itself is overwrought and over hyped, in my opinion. Famous Finnish composer and conductor, the Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen was similarly critical of Shostakovich especially this symphony. He said in 1987:

    “When I have said that the 7th symphony of Shostakovich is a dull and unpleasant composition, people have responded: “Yes, yes, but think of the background of that symphony.” Such an attitude does no good to anyone.”

    Correct, but what the musicians did to perform this piece is truly amazing and telling and an excellent example of musicians and workers. The book by Moyahan is excellent. Here the worker/musicians were the heroes.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 5, 2016 @ 5:04 am

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