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Top Five Expressions of Thanks in Classical Music

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The musical qualities associated with gratitude are difficult to describe. There are compositional conventions for strong emotions and passions, such as love, anger, glee, and sorrow. Giving thanks, though, requires a bit more nuance—a challenge for any skilled composer. Luckily, as we prepare for Thanksgiving, there have been plenty of composers up to the task, especially in the five pieces that follow:

1. Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 Adagio

Beethoven’s works are often examined through highly biographical perspectives, and the Adagio from String Quartet No. 15, also under the title “A Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to a Deity, in the Lydian Mode,” provides one such example. While composing the quartet, Beethoven fell gravely ill from intestinal distress. He nursed himself back to health on a restrictive diet, though he would die two years later. The slow movement manifests his return to health, starting in minor and miraculously shifting to major. However, the work also encompasses the gamut of human emotion from gratitude and joy to regret and yearning. It’s no surprise that this Opus 132 would inspire T.S. Eliot to write his poems, Four Quartets, more than a century later. Below: The Hugo Wolf Quartet:

2. Ives's Holiday Symphony

The culmination of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony is the Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day movement, which describes the Pilgrims' fraught adventure across the Atlantic Ocean, their struggle in settling in New World, and their fortitude of character in surviving. It then segues into a New England celebration with a round of traditional hymns. We can be sure that Ives was thinking of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday in his native New England when he wrote the piece; he dedicated the last segment to his brother-in-law “Eddie” Carrington Twichell with the inscription, “This is a nice piece of turkey.”

3. Bach's Cantata "He who offers thanks praises me"

It’s no surprise that J.S. Bach makes our list with Cantata BMV 17 “He who offers thanks praises me.” The work begins with a glorious fugue sung by a chorus. The voices and instruments continually grow in strength and complexity with each repetition of the title phrase, weaving together a spiritually uplifting and sincere message. The work was intended for the 14th Sunday after the Trinity, but it would be a welcome accompaniment for any Thanksgiving table.

4. Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel - Chorus of Thanksgiving

In light of the holiday, it’s rather ironic that the disruption of a feast gives rise to a chorus of thanksgiving. However, in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel the children, who were almost served as a main course, are completely grateful to their heroes, the titular siblings. Once Hansel and Gretel trick the evil witch into stepping into her own oven, meant for her pre-adolescent prey, she’s cooked, releasing her other victims from their gingerbread fate.

5. Monteverdi’s Mass for Thanksgiving

Premiered only ten years after the Pilgrims inaugurated the first Thanksgiving in the Americas, Monteverdi’s Mass for Thanksgiving was first performed in 1631 at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. The piece was written to celebrate the official end of the plague in the city-state. Only the Gloria of the Mass has survived in tact. The most complete rendering of the work comes courtesy of the Taverner Choir and conductor Andrew Parrott, who recorded the work in a well-reviewed album.

Which piece suggests gratitude to you? Please share your suggestions in the comments box below.