Sing Me Victorian Techno
June 16, 2015 1:24 AM   Subscribe

What examples are there of classical or popular music inspired by the sounds of industrialization and mechanization in the 19th century? 20th-century rock and electronic musicians from industrial cities like Sheffield, Düsseldorf and Detroit have cited the mechanical rhythms of the factories around them as formative influences on their work. Did anything of this sort happen in the industrial centres of 19th-century Europe or North America? What 19th-Century music was inspired by the rhythms of steam engines, textile mills, mines & foundries?

I recently became aware of Charles-Valentin Alkan's 1847 railway-inspired piano piece Le Chemin de Fer, and wondered what other ‘industrial’ music the industrial revolution might have produced. Note that I’m more interested in hearing about any influence on musical composition, rather than the development of mechanical musical instruments such as steam organs or player pianos, but information about music specifically composed for mechanical instrumentation would be of interest too.
posted by misteraitch to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Parade, by Eric Satie

As you might expect, it has a rather interesting orchestration which includes a typewriter, a pistol, and a lot of other strange voices in the percussion section.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:40 AM on June 16, 2015

Powerhouse, by Raymond Scott. You will recognize it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:44 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I apologize for the fact that those are not 19th Century.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:19 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, Chocolate Pickle - I was hoping more for 19th-century suggestions (‘the long 19th Century’ at a pinch). I already know about the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians & The Art of Noises.
posted by misteraitch at 5:46 AM on June 16, 2015

Best answer: Charles Ives incorporated vernacular music into his works, but I don't think he was using the sounds of industry. Putnam's Camp has a 4th of July celebration.
And Act 1 of Wagner's Siegfried involves blacksmithery
Prokoviev wrote a ballet set in a factory, Le pas d'acier (The steel step)
Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore
posted by Ideefixe at 8:09 AM on June 16, 2015

I think you're going to find very little of this kind of thing in the 19th Century. The idea of music that sounds like things comes out of the "Tone Poem" movement, which didn't really become established until the last quarter of the 19th Century.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:06 AM on June 16, 2015

Clearly not 19th C., but I think Steve Reich's Different Trains is amazing and seems to harken from an earlier time.
posted by cleroy at 4:48 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Anvil Chorus isn’t quite the kind of thing I’d had in mind, but does meet my stated criteria. Ideefixe: is there a specific passage in Siegfried you can point to? I don’t care for Wagner’s music at all & haven’t the patience to wade through the whole thing. The Prokofiev piece is fascinating (I’d not heard of it before) but is decidedly 20th Century.

Chocolate Pickle is probably right to suggest that what I’m looking for barely exists. Nevertheless, a fresh bout of googling did turn up a few more 19th-Century railway-inspired pieces. Some of these, like Johann Strauss I’s 1837 Eisenbahn-Lust-Walzer or Johann Strauss II’s 1864 Vergnügungszug (‘Pleasure-train’) Polka seem inspired by the technology in name only, with no discernible ‘mechanical’ quality in the music. Hans Christian Lumbye’s Copenaghen Steam Railway Galop (ca. 1850) on the other hand, includes a fine orchestral impression of a steam train (from about 1m20s in the linked recording): perhaps that could qualify as tone poetry avant la lettre.

Another thing at the back of my mind when pondering this question (that I should have included when posting it) was something I’d seen on TV about workers in Lancashire’s textile mills in the early 19th Century developing clog dances supposedly inspired by the rhythmic sounds of the textile machinery. It’s been claimed that:
There were a variety of machines in the many mills of the Midlands and North West, each machine built for a specific function. There were many rhythms, and as the girls clog danced it is said that those watching the dancers could tell which machines they worked at, and from which mill.
I wondered if there might be any other traditions of similarly-inspired music or dance from elsewhere.
posted by misteraitch at 1:45 AM on June 17, 2015

Best answer: Wagner's Nibelungs are an industrial society of smiths and miners. We hear from one of them, Mime, that they used to be fine craftsmen who worked for the joy of it until Alberich forged the Ring of Power and forced them all to toil solely for him. Wagner had the aesthete's scorn for industrialisation; after a visit to the London docks, he commented "This is Alberich's dream come true: Nibelheim, world dominion, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog."

We only see the subterranean realm of Nibelheim once, in Scene 3 of Das Rheingold (the first opera in the Ring cycle). Here is the instrumental passage that covers the journey from Valhalla to Nibelheim, in a fantastic production from Valencia, Spain. As we plunge underground, the relentless rhythms of the Nibelung-motif are heard, first played by the orchestra and then on anvils, as the rhythms of industry literally drown out the music (which happens, I think, nowhere else in Wagner). It's worth noting that Wagner not only specified the number and different pitches of the anvils, but also where he wanted them placed around the opera house. He wanted the audience to feel surrounded by this relentless noise. (We hear the same thing at the end of Scene 3, as we ascend back up from Nibelheim.)

If you're curious, here's the rest of the Nibelheim scene in Patrice Chéreau's famous production for Bayreuth in 1980. The miner-looking guys are Nibelungs, the one-eyed man is the god Wotan (Odin) and the maniac with the lace collar and cuffs is the trickster god Loge (Loki).
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:45 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, Philip Glass used to work as a crane operator (for Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore) and has stated that the repetitive elements in his work are partly a response to the rhythms and noises he heard on construction sites.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2015

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