Liner Notes:  Home For The Harvest - Music For Thanksgiving

Nature’s abundance — this is what harvest festivals around the world have celebrated from time immemorial. But America’s great harvest festival, Thanksgiving, celebrates something else besides. Ever since Pilgrim newcomer and native Wampanoag sat together at a common table in the fall of 1621, Thanksgiving has been a reminder of our deep connection to family, friends, neighbors and (as the Founding Fathers would put it) Nature’s God.

After Independence, several presidents, beginning with George Washington, as well as governors of various states, occasionally designated certain days for “public thanksgiving and prayer.” It was, however, only in 1863 that the observance of Thanksgiving by the country as a whole officially became a permanent annual event.

On 3 October of that year, not long after Gettysburg brought the Union its first real hope of prevailing in the War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation (actually drafted by his secretary of state, William Seward) acknowledging that even amid horrendous conflict, “gracious gifts” continued to flow from “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God” and that gratitude was indisputably called for:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

This special Thanksgiving album — a joint venture of Albany Records and ArkivMusic — is intended as a musical companion to our multifaceted feast day, featuring works by some of our country’s most lauded composers, from hither and yon across the states and the decades. Some of their contributions are instrumental, others vocal. Some are symphonic excerpts, others dance tunes, spirituals or hymns. Some gleam with the burnish of the early 1800s, while even those of more recent date have the soft, rich rustle of nostalgia about them.

Of the various hymns included on this disk, the most familiar may well be Beautiful River [track 16], written in 1864 by the Baptist pastor Robert Lowry (1826-1899) on a sweltering summer day during an epidemic in Brooklyn. But the oldest is Awake, Our Souls [track 17], whose 1707 text is by British theologian Isaac Watts and whose melody is the 1834 Missionary Chant of Charles (Heinrich Christoph) Zeuner (1795-1857), a German émigré to Boston. And those who know New Englander George F. Root (1820-1895) only through his flag-waving Battle-Cry of Freedom will be struck by his subdued 1856 setting of the David Nelson text, My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By [track 7].

While such Protestant hymns were generally intended for singing within church and schoolroom, it was out of doors that many African-American spirituals appear to have been created and sung, the province of those toiling in the elements. The authorship of text and tune is almost always unknown. Such is the case with We Shall Walk Through the Valley [track 6], although the poignancy of both components is unmistakable in the William Appling arrangement here.

When stripped of their words, hymns and spirituals sometimes reveal unexpected treasures in music alone — a point that Midwesterner Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) demonstrated with the charmingly inventive Allegretto [track 3] from his 1928 Symphony on a Hymn Tune (the tune in question being How Firm a Foundation). New Yorker Morton Gould (1913- 1996) proved the same point in 1959 with his Spirituals for Strings, the gentle sorrow of Were You There?/Steal Away counterbalancing the airy All God’s Children Got Wings [tracks 9 and 10].

The works of John Powell (1882-1963) often exhibited his enthusiasm for the rural musical traditions of his native Virginia and Appalachia. Extracted from his 1938 collection for baritone voice and piano, Five Virginian Folk Songs, and here transcribed for flute and harp, Pretty Sally and At the Foot of Yonders Mountain [tracks 5 and 15] are graceful evocations of rejected romance.

Several of the remaining pieces, though fairly recent original compositions, also invoke simple folk and simpler times. For Californian Don Ray (1926-2005), the image of a Saturday-night social in circa-1900 Idaho inspired his 1996 piece Homestead Dances, with its Promenade, Farmhands’ Dance and Quilters’ Dance [tracks 4, 8 and 11]. From the 1965 choral-orchestral suite Frostiana by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), The Pasture [track 12] is a setting of a lovely little poem by New England’s bard, Robert Frost. And even if Ohio-hailing Robert Ward (1917- ) introduces a “foreign” element with the lilting Siciliano [track 2] from his 1973 Concertino for Strings, his having composed the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Crucible, about those very American Salem witches, redeems him.

It rests with transplanted Texan Don Gillis (1912-1978) to signal the contrasts inherent in November, the moody month of our celebration, through two movements of his Symphony X: Big D. Requiem for a Hero [track 13], a lament for JFK, touchingly reminds us of loss, of once-brilliant foliage now fallen; Cotton Bowl [track 14] tells us to be riotously grateful for all the gifts we’ve got — including parades, the cheering throng and, of course, football.

And with “gifts” we come at last to Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland (1900-1990), perhaps our most esteemed twentieth-century composer. His Down a Country Lane [track 1] began in 1962 as a piano piece for youngsters; he soon after scored it for orchestra and in 1988 had it transcribed for concert band. Variations on a Shaker Melody [track 18], based on the 1848 tune Simple Gifts, started as part of his 1944 balletAppalachian Spring; in 1958 he made the present band arrangement and in 1967 an orchestral version. Both compositions graciously complement the others on this disk, which all together artfully capture the homespun warmth, the festivity, the openheartedness and the humble reverence that in mixed but bountiful measure distinguish a most American holiday.

— Ray Bono

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