Looking for a musical feast to go along with your Thanksgiving feast? Well, Ether Game has you covered. Here’s our list of pieces all about food, dining, and overindulgence. Grab a fork, put on your bib, and dig in!
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni “O Statua Gentilissima” – Thanksgiving is a time for feasting, but it can also be a time for dealing with some strange dinner guests around the table: an inappropriate uncle, a kooky neighbor, or maybe someone’s bratty kid. But none of those guests are as frightening as the statue of the Commendatore, who joins Don Giovanni at dinner at the end of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The Don lives a life of sin: lying, womanizing, drinking, and even murdering the Commendatore, seemingly all without consequence. Then suddenly, the Commendatore’s statue begins to speak, and threatens Don Giovanni. The libertine laughs it off, and proudly invites him to dine. After the feast, there’s a knock on the door. The statue enters as the invited guest of Don Giovanni, and promptly drags the Don into hell. So there’s your Thanksgiving tip: don’t invite the statue of the man you just murdered!
- Henry Purcell, If Music Be The Food Of Love – There are countless musical settings of poems by William Shakespeare, especially among English composers. Yet Shakespeare was not the source of this song by the English Baroque master Henry Purcell. Rather, the lyrics of this song were written by poet Henry Heveningham. However, they were no doubt inspired by Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, written 100 years prior. The first verse follows Shakespeare’s poem exactly, but the second verse is Heveningham’s own and describes love as a feast for the senses with music as its greatest treat. Purcell never truly set any lyrics by Shakespeare, but did write music to a number of works inspired by Shakespeare. These included three versions of this poem, a semi-opera called The Fairy Queen (inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and the semi-opera The Tempest, a revised and altered version of Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
- Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, “Olim lacus colueram” (“The Song Of The Roasted Swan”) – Have you ever wondering what Thanksgiving must feel like for the turkey? Well, as it turns out, that question was addressed in the 13th century by a group of Benedictine monks living in a small village in Bavaria. These monks were responsible for a group of poems now known as the Carmina Burana, compiled in the 19th century by scholar Johann Andreas Schmeller. he poems were not what you expect from monks: they praise drinking, feasting, and gambling, and mock morality. One of the more interesting poems in the set is told from the perspective of a roasted swan. The swan laments; she was once beautiful and swimming in a lake, but now she’s roasted, basted, and approaching the munching teeth. Orff writes this aria in the range of a mezzo soprano, although it’s sung by a tenor to make it sound more strained and desperate.
- Leonard Bernstein, La Bonne Cuisine – Although many songs had been written about food, Bernstein’s “La Bonne Cuisine” was probably among the first to actually present recipes for food. The cycle consists of four recipes drawn from Émile Dutoit’s cookbook “La Bonne Cuisine Française” including recipes for Plum Pudding, Ox Tails, a kind of boiled hen stew called “Tavouk Gueunksis,” and a quick and easy rabbit stew called “Rabbit at Top Speed.” The Plum Pudding movement is especially appropriate for the holiday season. Plum pudding has been served during celebration feasts since medieval times. Surprisingly there are no plums in a traditional Plum Pudding. Rather the term “plum” originally referred to any fruit that had been dried. The cycle was written for Jennie Tourel, who also premiered Bernstein’s First Symphony. In addition to her association with Bernstein, she also premiered works by Hindemith and Poulenc, as well as creating the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
- William Walton, Belshazzar’s Feast – Like many biblical tales, the story of Belshazzar’s Feast is a warning against blasphemy. Taken from the Book of Daniel, which is thought to be a collection of folk tales, the story tells of the Babylonian tyrant Belshazzar, who knew how to throw a great party. Rather than be thankful for the feast, however, the Babylonians and their king were depicted as selfish, decadent, and corrupt oppressors of the Hebrew people. In the tale, a phantom hand begins to inscribe monetary values on the wall during the feast, and no one is quite sure what to make of it. The prophet Daniel, on the other hand, had a knack for abstract interpretation, and he interprets the writing as, quote “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting!” Soon after this, Belshazzar is slain and his kingdom divided. Walton based his oratorio on this story, after he was commissioned by the BBC to write the piece in 1930.
- Gioachino Rossini, Péchés de Vieillesse (“Sins Of Old Age”): “Quatre hors d’oeuvres” and “Quatre mendiants” – Gioachino Rossini was a well-known gourmand. He once said “Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart.” He was a particular fan of haute cuisine, especially the goose liver delicacy known as foie gras. If you’ve spent some time in fancy French restaurants, you may have come across the dish “Tournedos Rossini,” a dish named after the composer. It consists of a sliced beef filet topped with foie gras, truffles, and a Madeira demi-glace—a delicious dish, if you can afford it. Late in his career, Rossini wrote a large set of piano works called Péchés de vieillesse or “Sins of Old Age,” which contained one volume dedicated to his favorite pastime: food. Included is an homage to four hors d’oeuvres (radishes, anchovies, gherkins, and butter) and four dessert snacks referred to as “mendiants” or “beggars” (almonds, raisins, hazelnuts, and dried figs).
- Juan de Encina, Oy Comamos Y Bebamos (Villancico for Mardi Gras) – On Thanksgiving, we feast as a way of showing our gratitude for the bountiful harvest. But overindulgence doesn’t belong to only Thanksgiving. There are plenty of other days where people eat way too much, like Christmas… (or after a bad break up, or because it’s Thursday, or if you’re from my family, anytime Grandma cooks). Mardi Gras is another one of those days, where people feast because of the forty-day fast that lies ahead of them—I suppose that’s better than feasting before the all-day shopping spree that lies ahead of Americans on Thanksgiving. This work from early 16th-century composer Juan del Encina celebrates the Mardi Gras feast. It’s a villancico, which was a common musical form from Spain around this time. The song proclaims “Today let’s eat and drink … let’s stuff our stomachs until our skin stretches. Wise custom decrees that we gorge ourselves, for tomorrow we fast!”
- Lionel Bart, Oliver!, “Food, Glorious Food” – It’s only fitting that the word “gruel” rhymes with “cruel.” Gruel, a thin, mostly tasteless porridge was the lamented feast for the orphans in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, subtitled “The Parish Boy’s Progress.” The character Oliver Twist is a young orphan who escapes a life of child labor, only to find himself working for a roving band of juvenile ne’er-do-wells, picking pockets. Oliver upgrades from his diet of gruel to one of fried sausages and gin while working as a pick pocket. His meal is served to him nightly by Fagin, the group’s weaselly leader. In the musical version of this story, Fagin was famously played by actor Ron Moody. Moody was known as one of the first actors to bring method acting to the musical stage, choosing not to break character to perform any of his songs. Oliver!wasn’t the first Dickens musical adaptation—that distinction goes to A Christmas Carol—but it’s likely the most successful.
- “Weird Al” Yankovic (and Michael Jackson), “Eat It” – Nearly 40 years after his first food-related parody “My Bologna” (a knock-off of the Knack’s “My Sharona”), Weird Al Yankovic is still going strong, and still pretty weird. Yankovic got his start when he was featured on Dr. Demento’s radio show, a show that was known for featuring novelty records by Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman, and Spike Jones. Bolstered by the the visual medium of the music video on MTV, Weird Al was able to skewer all kinds of pop artists with his accordion skills. While Weird Al’s parodies touch on a variety of subjects, food seems to be his favorite. In addition to “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s hit “Beat It,” his other food-related parodies include “I Love Rocky Road,” “Fat,” “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch,” “Addicted to Spuds,” “Lasagna,” “Spam,” “Taco Grande,” and many others.