Poster Gregory Industries factory
Listen to music that celebrates workers of all kinds on this Labor Day.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Spend Labor Day with music that celebrates the worker

You might spend your Labor Day at a cookout or a mattress sale, or packing away your flip-flops. But maybe you just want to relax and contemplate the meaning behind the holiday. Listen to these works celebrating workers:

“Chorus of Cigarette Girls” (from Georges Bizet’s Carmen): As the tobacco factory bells ring, the girls gather outside for a work break, sampling their product and soaking up the attention of infatuated local soldiers who serenade them: “We’ll follow you, dark-haired cigarette girls, murmuring words of love to you!” The 1875 opera is said to have scandalized 19th-century audiences, but this scene is just a lighthearted warmup.

The Strenuous Life (Scott Joplin): The King of Ragtime, being politically astute, was inspired to write this in 1902 by a Theodore Roosevelt speech extolling the virtues of hard work and lambasting “ignoble ease.” This jaunty rag, however, is the antithesis of a slog at the factory or in the fields. Perfect for a day off.

“Song of the Blacksmith” (Gustav Holst): It’s even got an anvil! The third movement of Holst’s 1911 Second Suite, based on the English folk song “A Blacksmith Courted Me,” incorporates the steely tool as an increasingly insistent form of percussion. The final heavenly chord is unexpected and effective because of a sudden key change.

Sonatine Bureaucratique (Erik Satie): This 1917 humorous piano work, largely appropriated from a 1797 sonatina by Muzio Clementi, was annotated by Satie with descriptions of a bureaucrat’s day at the office, during which no actual work is accomplished. Isn’t that just like a bureaucrat?  

The Plow That Broke the Plains (Virgil Thomson): Composed as accompaniment to a 1936 government-produced documentary film of the same name, the score is a patchwork quilt of hymns, dances and tunes such as “Git Along, Little Dogies.” Here’s a suite (titled “Cattle”) from the score:

Or watch the entire documentary. Notice how the grandeur of the music, crackly as it is, matches the windswept vistas and the poetic narration (keeping in mind the attitudes of the time):

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” (George and Ira Gershwin): Written for the 1937 film “A Damsel in Distress,” it opens with a warning against working too hard: “The man who only lives for making money lives a life that isn’t necessarily sunny.” The song recommends falling in love as “the best work of all — if you can get it.” But let Ella tell it:

Estancia (Alberto Ginastera): Argentina’s Ginastera originally composed the work (translated as “ranch”) as a commissioned ballet in 1941, but after the production was delayed for several years, he turned it into a four-act suite. This first dance, “Los Trabajadores Agricolas” (“The Land Workers”) is pretty energetic for weary farmhands.

Fanfare for the Common Man (Aaron Copland) / Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman (Joan Tower):  Copland’s stirring and enduring work was composed in 1942 by request from conductor Eugene Goossens, who had commissioned fanfares during World War I and wanted to repeat the exercise during World War II. Copland named it after hearing a speech extolling “The Century of the Common Man,” by Vice President Henry Wallace.

Tower’s response comprises six pieces composed from 1986 to 2016 as a tribute to “women who take risks and are adventurous,” with each dedicated to a woman in music. The first fanfare, honoring conductor Marin Alsop, echoes Copland’s brass-heavy theme, but by the sixth piece, inspired by composer Tania Leon, Tower’s work has morphed from fanfare to more of an overture: 

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation


Latest Holiday Episodes


Latest Holiday Episodes