Thanksgiving    Back to Musical Occasions


Almost every culture in the world has a thanksgiving festival of some kind. In the , it is the harvest festival, in , the festival of the August Moon. The Vietnamese call it Tet Trung Thu, and in Africa it is called many things including the Yam Festival and Kwanzaa.

The purpose of all these feasts is to give thanks to God for the newly harvested crops and to pray for success in the following year. While all of these are important dates in their respective cultures’ calendars, perhaps the best known and most recently inaugurated of these is the American Thanksgiving feast, which takes place on the last Thursday in November each year.

The story of the first Thanksgiving is one widely taught in American schools, but little understood elsewhere in the world.

During the early 1600s, several groups of Puritan Pilgrims travelled from to settle on the North-east coast of in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island , in an area populated by the Wampanoag Indians. One group of Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag tribe to a celebration of their first successful harvest in their new home, and they sat down together for a three day feast. The Indians already had six thanksgiving festivals each year, so the cultural and religious significance of the event was clear to them, and since the two groups were to become increasingly interdependent in the following years, the diplomatic aspect of the gesture was an important one.

Although the peace was to last less than a generation, the first Thanksgiving has taken on an iconic status to Americans, and it is seen as a time to celebrate peace, family and the bounty of nature.

The Pilgrims were English puritans. They followed a very simple kind of Christianity, and were firmly opposed to many aspects of the English Church , which they saw as ostentatious distractions from the worship of God.

While they were sitting down with the Wampanoag Indians for their three day feast, Christians throughout Europe were celebrating God with a form of music that had taken centuries to develop. Typical of the kind of music sung in English Churches around this time is William Byrd’s Cantiones Sacre. Although profoundly religious in character, there were many who thought that the beauty of this music distracted people from the worship of God – they would enjoy listening to it instead of thinking about God. As composers became more adept at counterpoint (interweaving melody lines), it became increasingly difficult to hear the words. By the time the Puritans set off for the New World , the had set up a commission to ensure that nothing impious found its way into religious music.

Cantiones Sacrae

The Pilgrims wouldn’t have been totally without music, but they would have been much more familiar with the kind of music that is heard in many non-conformist churches today.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is a ballet set in 19th century Pennsylvania , but it still contains a set of variations on the shaker tune, The gift to be simple. Although Copland takes a very 20th century approach to this ballet score, its musical basis is much closer to the religious music of early American Christians than the established church music of the Catholic Church. The set of variations on this tune begin about six minutes from the end of this recording.

Appalachian Spring

Among all composers there can be few that have contributed as much to ’s cultural heritage as Aaron Copland, but probably the most famous piece to come out of was actually written by a Czechoslovakian.

Antonín Dvorák’s ninth symphony, From the New World, is a sort of musical picture postcard, written by Dvorak while he was working in New York . He was astounded by the majesty of the American landscape, in much the same way as the Pilgrim Fathers must have been, and he wrote this magnificent symphony in an attempt to capture his awe.

Dvorak was captivated by the (then still quite new) American musical tradition, and there is much speculation about which aspects of the symphony are influenced by things he heard while travelling around the .

New World Symphony