Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday since childhood. It was always a time to take stock of my young life and say thank you to my parents, family, close friends, teachers, and later, my work colleagues. I’ve always felt that people who made a difference in my life should hear it from me.
Composers have said “thank you,” too, to patrons, friends and institutions alike. Here are some of those musical thanks.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was given an honorary doctorate in philosophy by the University of Breslau. Brahms wrote a thank you postcard to the University, but the conductor who had nominated him for the honor advised him to also write a piece to commemorate the occasion. He told Brahms the University was expecting something “grand.” Although the conductor asked for a symphony, Brahms wrote the Academic Festival Overture, a celebratory piece that wove in bits of at least 4 popular college drinking tunes. The school administrators, expecting something solemn as befitting the occasion, must have been shocked when it was premiered in 1881, with Brahms himself conducting. Here’s Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic:
Although Brahms never attended college, he was proud of the honorary degree and referred to himself as “Dr. Brahms” the rest of his life.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) also was grateful to a school. The English composer was the Music Master at the St. Paul’s Girl’s School in Hammersmith, West London. In 1913 the school dedicated a new wing that included a well-appointed soundproof studio for Holst. He wrote St. Paul’s Suite for his all-girl orchestra as a thank you to the school. One of the richest sounding recordings is with the City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox conducting.
The music wasn’t published until 1922 because Holst kept revising it, and that’s the version we hear today.
Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme, is commonly referred to as the "Enigma" Variations. The composer dedicated each of the variations to a different friend, but he didn’t identify them at the time. While some have speculated that the ‘enigma’ part was in trying to find a hidden tune in the piece, most people agree the puzzle was for the listener to figure out which variation, preceded by initials or a nickname, went to which person in his circle. What is certain is that the 9th variation, titled “Nimrod,” was dedicated to his close friend and publisher Augustus Jaeger. The story goes that at one point a frustrated Elgar thought seriously of giving up composition altogether. Jaeger, who was both Elgar’s biggest supporter and harshest critic, talked Elgar through the crisis in self-confidence. Elgar spoke gratefully of that pep talk on a number of occasions. Here is Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in “Nimrod.”
If you’re wondering how people figured out who Nimrod represented, the grandson of Noah is described in the Bible as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The name Jaeger is German for “hunter.”
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had started writing his Piano Trio No. 2 in 1943. In 1944 he got the devastating news that his friend and mentor, Ivan Sollertinsky, died of heart failure at age 41. Sollertinsky was a polymath, highly respected in a number of fields including music. He was instrumental in bringing Mahler’s music to Russia and introducing Shostakovich to Mahler’s music as well. Sollertinsky had been a strong supporter of new music and Shostakovich’s in particular. Shostakovich finished and then dedicated the piece by writing “I remember Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky with gratitude.” Although you can find several performances of the entire half-hour long piece on YouTube, here is the 4th movement played by pianist Martha Argerich, violinist Gidon Kremer, and cellist Misha Maisky:
Just a note that while Shostakovich thanked his late friend with this piece, the tragic slow movement was also played at Shostakovich’s own funeral.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) dedicated his Symphony No. 4 to his long-time patroness Nadezhda von Meck. Theirs was one of the strangest relationships in musical history. She was a wealthy businesswoman who supported him financially for 13 years with the stipulation that they never meet in person! Despite that, there were many letters between the two which were encouraging, warm, and loving, and full of personal confidences. Tchaikovsky’s dedication was significant because, in Russia at the time, patrons and artists were considered equal partners in the works of art. The actual dedication read “Dedicated to My Best Friend.” Here’s the first half of the first movement with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The last thing I do before I turn out the night light is jot words of thanks in my Gratitude Journal. I’ve kept a journal (now journals, plural) for over 2-dozen years. Even on my worst or saddest days I have found something for which to be grateful, and in so doing I have learned that no day is a waste. Family and friends, certainly, celebrations, lost items finally found, projects completed and even an unexpected ray of sunshine have been noted. WCRB listeners who have engaged with me are often mentioned. I’ve told it to the journal, so now, to WCRB’s listeners new or long-time, simply, Thank You, and Happy Thanksgiving.
CODA: Friendships grow and nothing more is said; that is, friends don’t necessarily say thank you to friends for being a friend. Andrew Gold thought that should change when he wrote and recorded the song “Thank You for Being a Friend” in 1978. Cynthia Fee was tapped to sing a cover for the sit-com The Golden Girls.