By Ricky O’Bannon
Thanksgiving isn’t exactly a big date on the classical calendar. Most orchestras take the week off, and there really isn’t a staple piece of repertoire that begs a performance, like Handel’s Messiah at Christmas or a certain piece celebrating the Tsar’s victory over Napoleon that we tend to enjoy around Fourth of July.
The reason there aren’t many composers writing about Thanksgiving is simple. Thanksgiving is largely a North American holiday while most of those in the classical canon are not. Additionally, even in the states, Thanksgiving didn’t become an officially sanctioned national date until Abraham Lincoln declared it such in 1863 during the Civil War.
However, the themes of Thanksgiving — celebrating the harvest and gratitude — are universal across cultures and eras. So while there might not be many overt classical works about the holiday, there are plenty that might offer poignant moments of introspection or celebration somewhere between turkey and football.
1. Morton Gould - Harvest
Composer and piano virtuoso Morton Gould wrote Harvest in 1945, which he dedicated to his wife. Harvest is a tone poem, that evokes feelings of rural Americana. It’s often held up as one of Gould’s more “serious” compositions, and it borrows techniques from Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. The piece is also one of the few classical works that calls for vibraphone. In case you were left wanting more Gould and harvest-themed music, an interesting counterpoint to Gould’s own Harvest is a lively recording he arranged and performed with his orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s August/Harvest movement from The Months.
2. John Taverner - Akhatist of Thanksgiving
The majority of the traditional music associated with Thanksgiving tends to be religious hymn tunes. The Dutch Christian hymn tune “We Gather Together” has become a staple for the holiday particularly in the American Methodist church (though it’s worth pointing out the Dutch composer Adrianus Valerius originally wrote the piece in 1597 to celebrate a victory over the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War.) Also sometimes associated with the holiday is the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which Aaron Copland used in Appalachian Suite.
A little more off the beaten path (but still as arguably appropriate for Thanksgiving as a piece celebrating a strategic 16th century military victory) is John Taverner’s “Akhatist of Thanksgiving.” The hymn itself was written in 1940 by Archpriest Gregory Petrov of the Russian Orthodox Church. Petrov was being held in Siberian labor camp during a Stalinist purge. John Taverner was an English composer known particularly for religious choral works, and he set the hymn to music in 1987. Taverner writes that despite the setting for the author, the hymn is grateful. “[It] sees the beautiful in the most apparently ugly.”
3. Percy Grainger - Harvest Hymn
Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger is probably best known for his arrangements of traditional folk songs. Harvest Hymn, however, is an original work meant to emulate hymn tune style. Like a number of his works, it is “elastically scored” meaning there are any number of arrangements ranging from piano, to choir to wind band.
4. Charles Ives - Holiday Symphony: Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day
The American maverick composer Charles Ives had a lifelong fascination with how music sounded in the natural world. He found inspiration in experiences he had listening to two marching bands pass by one another as they played different pieces or by hearing a hymn tune distort as it wafted from a church across a misty lake. In the final movement of his Holiday Symphony, titled “Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day,” Ives quotes several hymn tunes, which at times compete discordantly with one another. The orchestra eventually agrees and comes together, and as described by Michael Tilson Thomas in the series Keeping Score, “the different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind.”
5. Edward MacDowell - Sea Pieces No.3 “A. D. MDCXX”
Author Wilfrid Mellers described Sea Pieces by composer Edward MacDowell as “a boy’s view of the American past, looked back to from a premature middle age.” MacDowell was an American Romantic composer working in an era driven by nationalism, MacDowell and his contemporaries were looking for something that sounded “American” about their music without creating a rigid national style. The third movement of Sea Pieces, “A. D. MCXX” refers to the year 1620, when the Mayflower set sail for the new world. The piano piece has a certain swing to it, meant to evoke the rocking of the ship in the open ocean.
6. Per Nørgård - Harvest Timeless
This final work might be cheating for a harvest festival or Thanksgiving-themed playlist as the title doesn’t actually refer to an actual harvest. Instead the title comes from the literal English translation of the Danish name for the autumn crocus flower. “The paradoxical union of a seasonal time (harvest) and no-time-at-all was a good fit to the sections of the work that I had composed,” wrote Nørgård. The composer doesn’t offer much more than that on the title, and yet the linguistic combination is something of a fitting symbol for annual traditions like the harvest of Thanksgiving, which are both very specific moments and yet part of a timeless, repeating series of events where we partake in the same meal and activities as our parents and their parents before them. If you’re unconvinced of the metaphorical significance, maybe you’ll find the piece itself more compelling, which was written for and dedicated to the Kronos Quartet.