Suggested Listening Special Edition: Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!  Though I’m a day late on this post, today happens to be the one-year anniversary of my first post!  So I just wanted to say “thank you” to all you awesome readers and followers for your encouragement, interest, and comments — it really means a lot.

Now, without further ado, here are three pieces of music to help celebrate the Thanksgiving season…

1. Charles Ives: “Thanksgiving” from A Symphony: New England Holidays

 Charles Ives (1874-1954) was known for incorporating American folk traditions into much of his music, and his Holidays symphony was no different.  The story behind the First Thanksgiving was one of conflict — cultural, religious, ideological.  The Pilgrims were Puritans seeking religious freedom in a New World, where they encountered Native Americans whose society was vastly different from their own.  Ives portrays these contrasts in “Thanksgiving” by dividing the orchestra into two opposing halves, each performing a different hymn in a different key.  The result is a cloud of dissonance, growing in darkness and intensity, until out of nowhere a choir bursts into a melange of hymns that merge into a single song of thanksgiving.  About 10 minutes in, you can hear the woodwinds — oboe, flute, clarinet — passing around the melody to a hymn by David Nelson entitled “The Shining Shore” (listen to it here, and read the lyrics here).  Nelson was an American doctor, minister, and abolitionist living in the first half of the 19th century.  His role in freeing slaves along the Underground Railroad is definitely something to be thankful for. 

2. Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Song of Thanksgiving 

As World War II was drawing to an end, the BBC commissioned English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) to write an “anthem” in celebration of the end of the war and the Allies‘ victory.  The result was this gorgeous 1944 masterpiece for narrator, soprano soloist, children’s choir, mixed chorus, and orchestra.  The sung and spoken texts were selected by Vaughan Williams himself, from the Bible as well as from the works of William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling.  (The full text, including a listing of sources, is available in the description to the YouTube video embedded above, and linked here.)  This meshing of sacred and secular, speech and song, creates an epic and moving musical story full of patriotism, grief, joy, and — most importantly — sincere thanksgiving for an end to the violence that had defined Europe and the entire world for more than half a decade.

3. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring 

Perhaps no composer screams “AMERICA” more than the great Aaron Copland (1900-1990) — and perhaps no work screams “COPLAND” more than Appalachian Spring.  Originally a ballet with choreography by the founder of modern dance, Martha GrahamAppalachian Spring tells the story of a newlywed couple in Appalachia at the turn of the 19th century.  Aided by other pioneers, including a preacher and his congregation, the bride and groom forge their life together, building a farmhouse and even starting a family.  Copland’s compositional style in this piece is characterized by sustained, thinly textured chords that change “color” as different instruments phase in and out, and also by irregular rhythms that are full of energy perfect for dancing.  One of the most famous portions of this piece, heard at around 16’30”, is the clarinet solo with bell-like woodwind accompaniment, performing a Shaker hymn entitled “Simple Gifts.”  The hymn (listen to some real-live Shakers sing it here, and read the text here) proclaims that “’tis the gift to be simple,” and reminds us to be grateful for the simple things in our lives, and to take nothing for granted.  That is, after all, what Thanksgiving is about.

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