Top Five Expressions of Thanks in Classical Music

Monday, November 25, 2013

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.


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Comments [9]

Zarathustra from North Bay

For me, the obvious and most moving music of thanks is the chorus "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah." It may be overplayed to the point of being hackneyed but it always evokes deep feelings for me. In context, it is one of the most beautiful and rousing of pieces giving thanks.

Nov. 26 2015 03:20 PM
Charles Cates

Bach Bminor Mass has to be the crowning achievement of all music. If you don't get completely wrapped in our Creator's arms, you have no soul. It breathes life from every note.

Nov. 26 2015 04:06 AM
George Jochnowitz from New York

The duet "Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann" in Mozart's The Magic Flute has always struck me as an expression of Thanksgiving.

Nov. 27 2014 01:23 PM
Music Police from United States

Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang is never in minor (though the first and the fifth movements of the quartet are). It's in the Lydian mode! (Which, in fact, is an important part of the depiction of "thanks giving" - the Lydian mode is one of the old church modes, and by using it, Beethoven gave the movement an unusual sonority evoking a sense of prayer.)

Nov. 26 2014 10:13 PM
Lou Gerbino from Silver City, Iowa

I usually think of another Bach cantata,BWV 29. Its title,Wir danken dir,Gott says it all. Though I am an agnostic, I have no problem listening to Bach thank his god so gloriously. Oh, thanks for the reminder about BWV 17. I have it here and will listen to it today.

Nov. 26 2014 11:17 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Self correction time, I believe the beginning words were "We gather together to ask the LORDS blessing." et al
However the sentiment is the same as LORD would be considered improper in Public Schools today. Political correctness is insane. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 26 2013 01:24 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Yes Les, I do recall that song, in fact I think we sang it in a Thanksgiving or Christmas pageant in grade school.
Today however any school administrator who had students even utter the word GOD, would be thrown in a fire and burned for so doing. Isn't it sad the direction this nation is going in, where children in Public Schools cannot utter the word God.
God Speed, Happy Thanksgiving to all, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 26 2013 01:18 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

In addition to the august selections mentioned, I'd like to add the obvious one that I remember singing in grammar school: composer-conductor-arranger Edward Kremser's "A Prayer of Thanksgiving", whose title many think comprise the opening three words "We gather together...". Thanksgiving prompts nostalgia; and for those who remember --- and for those who are interested --- Jussi Bjoerling sang it on one of his "Voice of Firestone" appearances (Nov. 19, 1951). The first verse was repeated with audience participation ---and a very musical audience at that! --- and then the second verse was sung as a solo. Howard Barlow conducted the Firestone Orchestra. It was on VHS and is probably on DVD from VAI.

Nov. 25 2013 09:34 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

I can't believe you did not include Panis Angelicus.
Every year for the past ten, on the hottest days of August, I take out my sheet music for it and spend a few hours a month at my son in laws sisters house in Front Royal studying it. She is a conservatory trained pianist, and I have been playing Cello some 20 years now.
We have a very large "county" thanksgiving at the farm with over fifty family members and each year my sister in law and I do a sort of "family concert" always ending with Panis Angelicus. As the weather cools down and leaves begin to turn I spend a few complete cello lesson sessions with my teacher on piano, going over this gem so i can hold my head up at dessert after we complete our playing, and before an evening hunt for deer for the food bank. No early black Friday shopping for us even though Front Royal got a Wal Mart six or so years ago. Happy Thanksgiving, God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 25 2013 09:15 AM

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