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Music For Your Thanksgiving Supper

Let’s feast with Ether Game’s breakdown of music for your Thanksgiving dishes! (Photo: Pixabay)

Need a playlist for your Thanksgiving feast? Ether Game has a piece of music for each part of the Thanksgiving meal. So loosen up that belt, take a seat and give thanks as we chow down on some delicious dishes!

  • TURKEY: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Piano Sonata in A major, K. 331: III. Rondo Alla Turca – The star of any Thanksgiving supper is certainly the turkey, so naturally we picked Mozart’s famous “Rondo alla Turca” to represent this delicious bird. The percussive march sound in this famous piano sonata movement represents the Janissary military bands of the Ottoman Empire, which is now modern day Turkey. The Thanksgiving turkey on the other hand does not come from Turkey. Turkeys are North American birds, and how they acquired the name “Turkey” is a big debate among etymologists. Most agree that European settlers conflated the North American fowl with a somewhat similar African fowl. The African fowl originally made its way to Europe via Turkish trade routes—hence the name turkey. However, there are no native turkeys in Turkey, and to make matters even more confusing, the Turkish people call turkeys hindi because they believed turkeys were from India. So, now, when there’s a lull in your Thanksgiving dinner conversation, you are armed with some quality Turkey trivia!


  • STUFFING: Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), Concerto in G major for Viola, Strings and Basso Continuo: IV. Presto – Can a piece of music be stuffed? This piece by Telemann is a classic example of a Baroque concerto. In a Baroque concerto, there are basically two parts that alternate in succession: solo sections and the sections for full orchestra. These orchestral sections are usually referred to with the term ripieno. The term “ripieno” in Italian literally translates to “stuffing.” While it’s kind of an insult to think that the non-soloists are just “stuffing” in between the solo passages in a Baroque concerto, Thanksgiving stuffing is anything but mere filler. This savory mixture of bread, sausage, sautéed vegetables, and poultry stock is definitely a star. In fact in a recent poll from the statistics gurus at, stuffing eked out mashed potatoes as the favorite Thanksgiving side.


  • ROLLS: Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, “Drumroll”: I. Adagio – Allegro con spirito – The inclusion of Haydn’s “Drumroll” symphony on this playlist could satisfy not one, but two different parts of the Thanksgiving feast. First, there’s the drumstick, which is both the name of the coveted turkey leg and the implement used to strike a drum (although, I guess it’s technically a mallet used in this symphony). And then there’s also the roll, which is both that delicious bready vehicle used for sopping up gravy and butter, and the percussion technique used in the opening of this symphony. Haydn’s “Drumroll” symphony is one of his twelve London symphonies, written during a residency there in the 1790s. Haydn used some gimmicky tricks for the eager London audiences. This includes beginning with “Drumroll” symphony with a long timpani drum roll, and inserting a sudden sforzando in the middle of a quiet passage in a symphony titled “Surprise.”


  • SWEET POTATOES: Franz Schubert (1797–1828), Die Forelle (“The Trout”) Played On Ocarinas – “Trout” is not part of the Thanksgiving feast, in fact, fish of any kind rarely has a place on the Thanksgiving table. Instead, we chose this piece because of the instrument featured in this performance, the Ocarina. Ocarinas are a type of vessel flute—that’s a flute played by blowing air into some kind of hollow chamber with holes (as opposed to a hollow tube with holes, like a regular flute). Ocarinas are ancient instruments, dating back thousands of years. Modern ocarinas were developed in Italy in the 19th century. For kids who grew up in the 1990s, the ocarina became popular by the video game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time, where it was featured heavily in the gameplay (and on the soundtrack by Koji Kondo). The name “ocarina” means “little goose” in Italian. Now you may be thinking: a “goose” is not really part of the Thanksgiving supper! But another common name for an ocarina, especially in America, is the sweet potato. And sweet potatoes are, for many people, the best part of Thanksgiving!


  • GRAVY: Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op. 6, No. 3: III. Grave – This slow interior movement of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Number 3 in C minor has the tempo marking of “grave” (pronounced GRAH-veh). Now this “Grave” is not to be confused with the “gravy” that shows up on Thanksgiving tables to smother everything on your plate. In fact, despite their similarity, their etymology is completely different. “Grave” is Italian for “heavy” or “serious” (the same root as the English word “grave”). It emerged as a musical term sometime in the 17th century, becoming synonymous with “very slowly.” “Gravy,” on the other hand, derives from the Old French word grané, which means a spiced stew and from the Low German word greaves, which means rendered animal fat. However on Thanksgiving, it is considered a very “grave” situation when you run out of “gravy.”


  • PIE: Gabriel Fauré (1825–1924), Requiem: Pie Jesu – For many, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner is actually the dessert, because Thanksgiving dessert is all about pies. There’s pumpkin pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, apple pie, or if you’re feeling a bit wild, lemon meringue pie. As far as we can tell, there are no well-known pieces of classical music about pie. So we chose the closest thing we could think of: “Pie Jesus”… or rather, the Pie Jesu. The Pie Jesu comes from the end of the Requiem mass, and translates to “Holy (or Pious, or Merciful) Jesus, Grant Them Rest.” Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” features the soprano soloist, and is probably the most famous movement of this famous Requiem from the late 19th century. In fact, this Pie Jesu is so iconic that Camille Saint-Saens remarked that Fauré’s Pie Jesu is the only Pie Jesu, rendering all other Pie Jesu’s completely irrelevant.


Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish recipe. (Credit: Ariel Zambelich & Emily Bogle/NPR)

  • CRANBERRY RELISH: Rodney Lister (b. 1951), Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish – Longtime fans of NPR will be more than familiar with the recipe dictated in this song. Susan Stamberg is the former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and every year for over 40 years, she has trotted out her mother-in-law’s infamous recipe for cranberry relish to the horror of listeners the Friday before Thanksgiving. Cranberry Relish is a Thanksgiving staple, but Mama Stamberg’s concoction includes some unusual additions like sour cream and horseradish to create something that resembles, in her words, “Pepto Bismol pink.” In the year 2000, composer Rodney Lister of the New England Conservatory set the recipe to music, and it was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition. Lister’s setting is a parody of a baroque cantata, mixed with the deadpan manner of Lister’s favorite writer Gertrude Stein. The recording is not available online, but you can find it on this CD.


  • WINE: Johann Strauss II (1825–1899), Wine, Woman and Song Waltzes, Op. 333 – It’s common to raise a glass before the start of a Thanksgiving feast and toast to the good fortune of the past year. At the Ether Game Brain Trust, we think there is no better toasting beverage than a freshly poured glass of wine. (And for some, it’s a necessity after spending a whole day with extended family!) The lines “who loves not wine, women and song/remains a fool his whole life long” were attributed to none other than Martin Luther, and provided Johann Strauss Jr. with the title for his second choral waltz. Luther was alleged to have written the inspirational lines during his residence in Wartburg Castle, where he began his German translation of the New Testament. The waltz was given its first performance on February 2, 1869, during a Carnival-time festival known as “Fool’s Evening” in Vienna. Many years later, an operetta entitled Vienna Blood reused some of the original melodic material from Wine, Women and Song, but abandoned the title inspired by the writings of Martin Luther.  


  • MASHED POTATOES: Dee Dee Sharp, “Mashed Potato Time” – Mashed potatoes are not only a creamy, delicious staple of any Thanksgiving feast, they’re also the name of a dance craze that swept the nation in the early 1960s. The dance itself is relatively simple, it involves swinging your heels out and in with all of your weight on the balls of your feet. The mashed potato likely started with James Brown in 1959, who made it part of his live show. He wanted to record a song called “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes” to capitalize on the dance, but his record label wouldn’t let him. So it was recorded by Nat Kendrick and the Swans (actually James Brown in disguise), and featured DJ King Coleman screaming out the line “Do The Mashed Potato.” The song later inspired several other mashed potato tunes, like this one “Mashed Potato Time,” a number one hit for Dee Dee Sharp in 1962. The mashed potato is also mentioned in other hit songs around this time, like “Do You Love Me” by The Contours, “Land Of 1000 Dances” by Chris Kenner and Wilson Pickett, and “Having A Party” by Sam Cooke.

Music Heard On This Episode


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