Works That Give Thanks

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States that celebrates our ancestors’ first harvest in the New World and a spirit of friendship between the colonists and Native Americans. The holiday is celebrated with parades, large family gatherings, and a home-cooked meal. Specific foods vary by region and family, but generally the traditional Thanksgiving meal includes a roasted turkey, corn, and pumpkin or apple pie for dessert.

“Holiday Symphony” (1904) Charles Ives

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an American composer from Connecticut who was best known for his experimentation with musical traditions. The son of a successful Union Army bandmaster, George Ives, Charles was exposed to music from an early age and, through it, learned to express himself (Thomas). His playful use of the art form and appreciation for unique harmonic structures have led him to be compared with artists like Walt Whitman (Thomas). Ives’ most famous works include Variations on America (1891), Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898), and The Unanswered Question (1906).

In 1904, Charles Ives wrote a four-movement work to represent four distinctly American holidays; George Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving. One might notice that three of the selected occasions reference the country’s military background, perhaps a nod to his father, and that all four of the holidays are secular; something that all Americans would celebrate. The Thanksgiving movement of Ives’ Holiday Symphony describes “the Pilgrims’ fraught adventure across the Atlantic Ocean” and concludes with a mélange of “traditional hymns (Angel).” Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, describes Ives’ use of controlled chaos with the implementation of two simultaneous hymns in opposing key signatures that, in the end, “merge into one universal hymn of mankind.”

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“Mass for Thanksgiving” (1631) Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance period. He is best known for his contributions to opera and for modernizing religious music (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Monteverdi’s career can be categorized by the two major periods of composition; first, his adherence to the old style of composing (prima prattica), and later, his contributions to the contemporary school of thought (seconda prattica). In his career, he had the honor of serving under the Duke of Mantua (1590-1612) and as the maestro di capella at the basilica of St. Mark in Venice. His most famous works include La favola d’Orfeo (1607), Lamento d’Arianna (1614), and Madrigals, Book 8: Madrigali Guerrieri, et Amorosi (1638).

According to Amanda Angel from New York Public Radio, Monteverdi’s Mass for Thanksgiving commemorates the official defeat of the plague in Venice that decimated nearly one third of the population. The work contains elements of high Renaissance polyphony and ample ornamentation. Recurring descending and ascending figures likely represent the plague’s many victims and the resulting wave of spirits rising peacefully to Heaven. Venetians still celebrate the Feste della Salute annually on November 21st with castradina (mouton meat-based dish) and a march towards the Basilica della Salute (Venezia Autentica).

FUN FACT: The premiere performance of the Mass for Thanksgiving took place in 1631, only a decade after American colonists celebrated their first successful harvest (Angel).

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Thanksgiving Waltz (1999) Jay Ungar

Jay Ungar (b.1946), is a Grammy-winning and Emmy-nominated composer and performer with a primary focus on American folk and bluegrass music (Harris). A native of New York, Ungar grew up surrounded by the arts and spent much of his time searching for “traditional players” to study with (Ungar). He has performed with multiple bands including Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, the Putnam Country String Band, Fiddle Fever, and the David Bromberg Band (Harris). His current partner and wife, Molly Mason, tours with him and has joined him for interviews on Good Morning America, The Rosie O’Donnel Show, All Things Considered, and others (Ungar).

The Thanksgiving Waltz is one small part of the 1999 album Harvest Home: Music for All Seasons recorded by Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. The secular piece is without lyrics and perfectly exemplifies the traditional bluegrass style. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, bluegrass music originated in the United States in the 1940’s with Bill Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys. The genre is characterized by syncopated rhythms, elements of jazz, and its heavy emphasis on the banjo and fiddle.

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A Song of Thanksgiving (1945) Ralph Vaughn Williams

Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) is widely considered “one of the finest British composers of the 20th century” (Oxford University Press). He is best known for his love of folk music and his contributions to English nationalism. Over the course of his prolific career, he composed nine symphonies, five operas, five ballets, thirteen concerti, and much more. Williams’ notable pieces include A London Symphony (1914), The Lark Ascending (1921), and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951).

Thanksgiving for Victory was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1943 to commemorate the inevitable defeat of the German Army (Horner). Williams completed the piece in 1945 and renamed it A Song for Thanksgiving (Horner). The work lasts approximately fifteen minutes and requires a soprano soloist, narrator, full chorus, and full orchestra. The lyrics were taken primarily from the Old Testament book of Isaiah and call for peace among men and loyalty to England.

       “Teach us delight in simple things, and mirth that has no bitter springs,
        forgiveness free of evil done, and love to all men 'neath the sun.
        Land of our birth, our faith, our pride, for whose dear sake our fathers died;
        O Motherland, we pledge to thee, head, heart and hand through the years to be.” 

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“Top Five Expressions of Thanks in Classical Music.” Angel, Amanda. WQXR. New York Public

          Radio. 25 November, 2015. Web. 27 August, 2017. <



“Learning to Listen: Music for Giving Thanks.” Blain, Andrea. Young, Alison. Classical MPR.

          Minnesota Public Radio. 23 November, 2015. Web. 27 August, 2017.



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          Encyclopaedia Britannica, Incorporated. 1 March, 2017. Web. 27 August, 2017.



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“Ives’ Holiday Symphony.” Thomas, Michael Tilson. Keeping Score. San Francisco Symphony.

          PBS. 2009. Web. 16 September, 2017. <



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          Washington, DC. 1999. Web. 16 September, 2017. <



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          16 September, 2017. <    



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          Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2 December, 2014. Web. 17 September, 2017.



“Biography.” Ungar, Jay. Jay Ungar & Molly Mason. Graph Paper Press. N.d.



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          23 September 2017. <



“Ralph Vaughn Williams.” Horner, Neil. MusicWeb International. N.p. N.d. Web. 23 September,

          2017. < VaughanWilliams



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          Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 9 Octobber, 2014. Web. 23 September, 2017.



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