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Posted September 2010

 

It was ghastly beyond belief. Dark, cold, a steep descent. I clung onto my helmet, my lamp, trying not to miss my step. Steps? There weren’t any. And that was the comfortable entry down the Daydream mine in Australia. Those 19th century Cornish miners had a twisted sense of humour. Calling a mine Daydream. This was the stuff of nightmares. Often the drives were so narrow and low that you couldn’t stand upright.  The Cornish men who more than a century ago had come to the Australian dessert in search of silver must have been shorter than us - and desperate. Who would have liked to work under these inhuman conditions?

Now I know why people whistle in the dark. The only music I could think of as I slithered down the slope was not a tune but a beat. Dum da dum dadada dum da dum. Dum da dum dadada dum da dum. That’s the sound of the anvils in Richard Wagner’s Rheingold. At the end of Scene 2 Wotan resolves to follow Loge down into the earth, in pursuit of the gold. An orchestral interlude "paints" their descent. You don’t have to be a Wagnerian to admire the composer for his skills. In a few bars only, he overlays two motifs: nervously scintillating cascading strings and loudly blaring brass which evoke Wotan’s and Loge’s hazardous climb to Nibelheim, juxtaposed with pounding percussions.    

As the orchestra fades, it gives way to a choir of 18 tuned anvils (indicated in the score with specific size, quantity and pitch) beating out the dotted rhythm of the Nibelung theme to give a stark depiction of the toiling of the enslaved dwarves.

Wagner was probably the first to make the sounds in a mine audible to the audience of his time. Heart-tearingly realistic yet at the same time aesthetically idealised.    

The miners who worked the Daydream mine faced a lot hardly better than the dwarves in Nibelheim. They toiled for twelve hours a days, six days a week. Work was done by candlelight and the number of candles they could use was limited. Mining was done by hammer and tapping holes, then firing them with blackpowder. Miners did not leave the workings for firings. Pickey boys (they were boys in their early teens) would hand pick the ore after a firing, and bag it. Waste rock was used for back-fill.

During the summer, those working under ground were the lucky ones. Above ground temperatures soared to over 40 degrees Celsius. Miners slept in dug outs – in fact holes in the ground – sitting up. Otherwise they would have drowned in their own blood as the lethal dust they breathed in the mine gradually destroyed their lungs. If they lived to see their 40th birthday they had lasted long.

Dum da dum dadada dum da dum. That’s Wagner’s tribute to the nameless miners swinging their hammers and hitting the chisels.

 

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