Harmonia Early Music

Traditions Series: Thanksgiving

This week, the Harmonia Traditions Series explores the Thanksgiving holiday in early America, plus a new release by the English choir Ex Cathedra.

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plaque with william billings written on it

Photo: Mr. Ducke

A historical marker noting the location where William Billings lay buried in an unmarked grave. Billings was one of early America's most prominent composers.

Although Thanksgiving Day did not become a national holiday until the second half of the 19th Century, we have been giving thanks at the end of the harvest season for over four hundred years. Today, the holiday is generally considered a secular one, yet early Americans gave thanks to God for the many blessings they received.

The earliest recorded Thanksgiving ceremony took place in 1565 at a Spanish settlement located in modern-day St. Augustine, Florida – the settlers gave thanks for their safe arrival. Nearly six decades later, the first Pilgrims gave thanks after their first harvest in the New World. Although modest, that initial harvest’s success was due to the help of Squanto, a Native American who taught the Pilgrims how to fish and grow corn.

Giving praise and thanks to God is a common theme in early American song.

The Moravians were a religious community in which giving thanks to God played an important role. Like in a number of early American communities, music was an integral part of their services. One type of Moravian service, known as a lovefeast, was primarily made up of music. Lovefeasts celebrated regular events as well as special occasions, sometimes even political ones.

The kind of music heard at Moravian lovefeasts was rich and varied, and could include some of the latest music from Europe or works from composers within the community. The composers who wrote music were usually skilled amateurs who set texts in both English and German.

One can hardly talk about 18th-century America without making mention of William Billings, one of the most prominent composers of the era. For a man who was untrained in music and who worked as a tanner, it is remarkable that Billings is regarded as the father of American choral music. Yet, his compositions were recognized in many a publication.

A few of America’s first presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations, yet it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, that it became a national holiday. Lincoln’s proclamation was addressed directly to his fellow Americans:

“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.”

Our new release features the English choir and orchestra Ex Cathedra. Jeffrey Skidmore leads the ensemble in a program of Latin American baroque music primarily focused on the composer Juan de Araujo.

The music heard in this episode was performed by Paul Hillier, His Majestie’s Clerkes, Boston Baroque, and The Waverly Consort.

Music Heard On This Episode

Diego Jose de Salazar: ¡Salga el torillo hosquillo!
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore — Fire Burning in the Snow (Hyperion , 2008)
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Diego Jose de Salazar: ¡Salga el torillo hosquillo!
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore — Fire Burning in the Snow (Hyperion , 2008)
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Timothy Swan : Rainbow / ’Tis by thy strength the mountains stand
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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William Tans’ur: Colchester / O ‘twas a joyful sound to hear
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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Jeremiah Ingalls : The Apple Tree
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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Nehemiah Shumway : Schenectady / From all that dwells below the skies
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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Abraham Wood : Worcester / How beauteous are their feet
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX, 1998)
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Mount Lebanon hymnal, New York, 1893 : Give good gifts one to another
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX, 1998)
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Trad.: Hymn Kommt, danket dem Helden
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman — Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians (Telarc , 1998)
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Christian Gregor : Das ist ein Tag
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman — Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians (Telarc , 1998)
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Johann Friedrich Peter : Ich will immer harren
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman — Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians (Telarc , 1998)
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Johann Christian Geisler : Die Frucht des Geistes ist Liebe
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman — Lost Music of Early America Music of the Moravians (Telarc , 1998)
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Anonymous: O Sing, all ye Redeemed
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman — Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians (Telarc , 1998)
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William Billings: Thanksgiving Anthem O praise the Lord of Heaven
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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William Billings: Jordan / There is a Land of pure Delight
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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William Billings: Chester / Let the tyrants shake their iron rod
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (B000QQWFYC, 1998)
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Anonymous: The Promised Land/The Traveller
The Waverly Consort/Michael Jaffee — An American Journey: Bound for the Promised Land (Angel , 1996)
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Anonymous: Evening Hymn The day is past and gone
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX , 1998)
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Juan de Araujo: Dios de amor
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore — Fire Burning in the Snow (Hyperion , 2008)
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Juan de Araujo: En el muy gran Padre Ignacio
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore — Fire Burning in the Snow (Hyperion , 2008)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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