Mendelssohn And Other Classic Composers Offer Musical Thanks

Nov 27, 2014
Originally published on November 27, 2014 2:50 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There are lots of ways to say thank you today that don't include turkey or cranberry sauce. For example, there is music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN ORATORIO, "ELIJAH")

CHORUS: (Singing in German).

MONTAGNE: That is the chorus "Thanks Be To God" from Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah." It's one of classical music's famous thank yous. And here to tell us about a few more is music commentator Miles Hoffman, who has become somewhat of a MORNING EDITION Thanksgiving tradition himself. Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Good morning, Renee. It's 13 years now. I guess that's a tradition.

MONTAGNE: Yes, absolutely. And Mendelssohn's "Elijah" is certainly a musical thank you on a grand scale.

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. It's one of the great ones. Mendelssohn knew and loved the oratorios of Handel - George Frideric Handel. And he also loved the chorale music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And when the Birmingham Music Festival in England commissioned Mendelssohn to write a big work for their 1846 festival season, he chose to write a big Handel-style, dramatic oratorio on a great, big Old Testament subject, Elijah. Actually, "Thanks Be To God" was not Mendelssohn's first musical thank you. Here's a musical thank you that he wrote 10 years before "Elijah," Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN ORATORIO, "PAULUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in German).

HOFFMAN: That's "Ich Danke Dir, Herr, Mein Gott," "I Thank You, Lord, My God," from Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio "Paulus" or "St. Paul." And the words are, I thank you, Lord, my God, wholeheartedly and eternally. And that piece was actually performed in Boston in 1837 when Mendelssohn was still alive.

MONTAGNE: And just a moment ago you mentioned Bach, who had indeed influenced Mendelssohn. What about Bach? Did he write any musical thank yous?

HOFFMAN: He wrote a whole bunch, and one of the loveliest is a chorale that he wrote called "Ich Danke Dir, O Gott, In Deinem Throne," I Thank You, Oh God, Upon Your Throne."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH CHORALE, "ICH DANKE DIR, O GOTT, IN DEINEM THRONE")

CHORUS: (Singing in German).

MONTAGNE: That is lovely.

HOFFMAN: It's one of the many chorale settings that Bach wrote, settings of German Protestant hymns.

MONTAGNE: And we're listening to classical music thank yous today to help us celebrate Thanksgiving. And, Miles, what about the music that says thank you without using any words at all?

HOFFMAN: Well, there are certainly pieces of like that. One of the most famous is by Beethoven. During the winter of 1824 when he was in his 50s, Beethoven was very, very sick. And he was afraid he'd die, but he recovered. And afterward, he expressed his gratitude in the slow movement of a string quartet. The music has no words, but he did give the movement a title. He called it "Holy Song Of Thanksgiving From A Convalescent To The Deity."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN SONG, "HEILIGER DANKGESANG EINES GENESENEN AN DIE GOTTHEIT")

HOFFMAN: That is the music of Beethoven, "Heiliger Dankgesang" or "Holy Song Of Thanksgiving." And, Renee, you know, at the risk of breaking the mood, I'm thinking of a musical thank you that's a bit more troubled than the ones we've heard so far. It is an aria, or song you might call it, from Leonard Bernstein's "MASS." And it's called "Thank You." But the singer doesn't express thanks to God so much as doubt and longing. She sings that she used to sing gratias Deo, which is Latin for thanks be to God. And she longs to feel thankful again. But for now, she just can't. She's held back by her doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN SONG, "THANK YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) And I sang Gloria. Then I sang gratias Deo. I knew a glorious feeling of thank you and thank you.

MONTAGNE: We have been listening to musical thank yous with Miles Hoffman. And, Miles, so far the musical thank yous we've heard do revolve, whether with joy or doubt, around a deity, around God. What about secular thank yous in classical music?

HOFFMAN: I have to say that my favorite musical thank you, Renee, is not a traditional religious thank you at all, but a thank you to music itself. It's by Franz Schubert. It's a song called "An Die Musik," "To Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT SONG, "AN DIE MUSIK")

FRITZ WUNDERLICH: (Singing in German).

HOFFMAN: Some of the words are, oh gracious art, in how many gray hours when life's fierce orbit encompassed me has thou kindled my heart to warm love, has charmed me into a better world? Oh, gracious art, for that, I thank thee.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT SONG, "AN DIE MUSIK")

WUNDERLICH: (Singing in German).

HOFFMAN: That's the voice of the great Fritz Wunderlich, singing Franz Schubert's "An Die Musik," which is just one of the most beautiful thank you notes anybody ever wrote. It's a thank you to music.

MONTAGNE: And we have been listening to musical thank yous with Miles Hoffman. He is the violist of the American Chamber Players. And, Miles, happy Thanksgiving to you and all your family.

HOFFMAN: And a very happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.