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What Father Made Us Sing Before the Turkey

Where have the great hits of Puritan remembrance gone? Thanksgiving is perhaps the most unmusical date in the festival calendar. Even Halloween has its diverse genres of scary music. For many Thanksgiving passes without the slightest melody.

We learned no songs of the Pilgrims in school back in the 1970s. Instead we endured music-less pageants, made puritan hats out of black construction paper or more colorful Indian headbands with orange and blue feathers.

These days, only the most rigorous Protestants come to their Thanksgiving Day services in any number. As an organist for various of the less austere of these sects, I would often lament the drudgery of having to play for a handful of old-timers who had taken a break from their labors in the kitchen to sing a few hymns—“We Plow the Fields and Scatter”; “We Gather Together” etc.—and listen to the obligatory sermon on religious freedom and the glories of America.

In an attempt to correct this in my household without having to drag the kids down to the Christian Science Church at the bottom of our winding street, where Thanksgiving remains a big deal, I went to the Cornell library in the hopes of exhuming appropriate music.

My researches eventually brought my to a volume on crumbling acid-paper once in the possession of a certain Alfred Irving Swifty and dated 1886. Bound together in dark blue cardboard is this fine collection of Victoriana. First among the contents is the “Opera Comique” Olivette by Edmond Audran adapted into English by H. B. Farnie. Cues for the songs are written in red ink in Swifty’s own flowing script. He seems to have played for a production of the piece a long time ago. After the overture things start in with a bang with the Gossip Chorus and Air: “Timid and Graceful” and then move to Olivette’s opening number “The Convent Slept”—all but her that is, as the sounds of a distant Tyrolian guitar stir her innermost feelings. And so the romance proceeds past “What! She your wife?” through to the high point of the work, the Bolero “Where balmy garlic scents the air,” shortly before the final chorus “All is ended.”

Next in the book comes a copy of Iolanthe signed by Arthur Sullivan. The Overture rises in a unison figure cast in the exotic Phrygian mode before leaping upward to cuddle warmly with Wagner’s famed Tristan chord—this appropriation of the most 19th-century of 19th-century chords surely a dagger to the heart of the megalomaniac of Bayreuth: within these first few bars the musical air is filled with the most suffocating Victorian perfume, later to be ionized with the relentless patter of chords.

In search of fresher air, I flipped forward to the last item: “Twelve Popular Songs, Written by Mrs. Hemans, Composed by Her Sister,” published in London in an edition of Chappell’s Musical Magazine probably from around 1850. The collection has suffered some attrition. Only the first page of the eleventh song, unmoored from its gathering thread, remains. But the first piece is there in all its glory: “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.” The poem first appeared in 1826 by the short-lived poet, who published her first volume, Early Blossoms, before she was fifteen. The song was also a huge favorite in the American 19th-century, the musical culmination of many a Plymouth Landing commemoration, not least at the annual celebrations of the New England Society at the Astor House in New York.

She was born a Browne in Liverpool to an Irish father in 1793. After financial reverses, he absconded to America when the future poet was only seven years old. It is perhaps not surprising that his daughter’s most famous poem should envision an America she never saw.

Hemans was unlucky with men, older ones that ran away—first her father, then her husband. As the Victorian musicologist, journalist, and organist Edward Rimbault puts it in the short biographical notice that opens the Chappell’s Musical Magazine dedicated to Hemans’ poems set by her sister, Mrs. Gray: “It was a year after the publication of the poetess’s first book, unfortunately for her future happiness, that she met with Captain Hemans, of the 4th Regiment, lately returned from Spanish service, to whom, after an attachment of three years, she was married in 1812.” After five years and five sons, Hemans left for Italy, “avowedly for the benefit of his health,” Rimbault writes with bitter irony. He never returned to England.

Felicia Hemans then moved in with her sister, like so many of her generation equipped with skills that allowed her to set her sister’s poetry to music. While living in the same household Hemans wrote “On the Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.” In spite of her circumstances she continued to write poetry, met and was praised by Wordsworth and Scott and others, published several volumes of poetry, and in 1830 moved to Dublin where she died at thirty-seven in 1835.

Though Felicia Hemans never left the British Isles her poem about the Pilgrims was still memorized—and often sung—by American school children into the middle of the 20th century. Like so many Romantics, she was expert at imagining landscapes she never saw.

The setting by her sister begins without piano introduction, the voice singing the first note of the rising fourth A to D sung alone, as if in medias res—the Pilgrims are at sea trying to come ashore: “The breaking waves dash’d high / On a stern and rock-bound coast.” We are in the most martial of keys, D Major, the big rolled chords in the piano crashing in after the pick-up. The mood is resolute, triumphant even, in the manner of Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling.” Like all good English girls of the early 19th-century, the Browne sisters knew their Haydn, a staple of bourgeois refinement after his London triumphs of the 1790s and the continued celebrity of his music in choral societies and drawing rooms long after.

The rhyme to the poem’s first two lines is made with “And the woods against a stormy sky, / Their giant branches toss’d.” Here the musical sister introduced roiling right-hand arpeggios to evoke the threatening elements, but the tempestuousness of a great composer is not in evidence: the harmonies move up from D Major through predictably intermediate chords, to A Major and the cadence, and then do this again and again, the sonorities dogging the rhyme scheme as the music gestures grandly in the parlor sublime.

The poem will later try to tell us this is not martial, but the music resounds with battlefield heroics. The poet attempts to cast the landing as a search for religious freedom, not for new lands and people to subdue, but the crashing chords tell us otherwise: “Not as the conqueror comes, / They the true-hearted come / Not with the roll of the stirring drums, / Or the trumpet that sings of fame.” The composing sister cannot resist painting these images in the piano accompaniment: she flourishes the rat-a-tat-tat of the drums and the clarion call.

The final piano interlude has more bugle calls. If we listen to the music, the legions of God, in search their own freedom, are seen to be armed with more than simply belief, though the poet insists theirs is not a quest for worldly riches but spiritual pay-off:

What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?-
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod.
They have left unstained what there they found.
Freedom to worship God.

And so the last line descends from the high D down the octave to its final cadence, traversing the modest range of the piece, one calibrated to the talents and ambitions of amateur singers. The mighty arrival on “God” is like a canon blast that silences all thoughts of earthly vicissitude and personal aggrandizement.

Back in the still early years of the 21st century, we gather around the piano and belt out the ballad. My daughters have only been to church when dragged along by father or mother—both organists. Even with this limited experience, they recognize the idiom of the Protestant hymn given a bit of florid filigree by Mrs. Gray. They try their best to be amused by it all, and in trying can’t help themselves from enjoying the frivolity of a piece that was once so serious to generations of singers of this very music.

But there is something missing here, and both daughters note it: “What about the Indians?”

As I’d discovered earlier in the week, Heman’s original poem begins with an epigram from American William Cullen Bryant’s epic “The Ages” that is not to be found in the setting in “Twelve Popular Songs by Mrs. Hemans”:

Look now abroad; Another race has fill’d
Those populous borders—wide the wood recedes,
And towns shoot up, and fertile realms are till’d;
The land is full of harvests and green meadows.

Here is the vision of America behind the rhetoric of religious freedom: ethnic cleansing, deforestation, and the prelude to urban sprawl.

I don’t tell my daughters about the epigram. They know the Thanskgiving back-story already. We give the song another go, then head back into the kitchen to baste the turkey.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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