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In recognition of Thanksgiving Day, here are ten classical music pieces written by composers about their homes.

1. Ferde Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite

American composer Ferde Grofé wrote this evocative five-movement suite between 1929 and 1931. The movements are titled: 1. “Sunrise”; 2. “Painted Desert”; 3. “On the Trail;” 4. “Sunset”; 5. “Cloudburst.” Some of this music, especially that of “On the Trail,” is well-known thanks to its use in Disney films and theme parks and in television commercials. Grofé also composed other music about America, including Mississippi Suite, Niagara Falls Suite, and Death Valley Suite.


2. Dvořák: American Suite

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, one of the great masters of melody, wrote several pieces about his beloved Bohemia, including the overture, My Home, and the tuneful Czech Suite. He also composed music about his second home, America, having lived in the United States from September 1892 to January 1895. From this period, there emerged his famed New World Symphony, his “American” string quartet, the almost-forgotten American Flag cantata, and also this charming, little-know suite, originally for piano, the American Suite.


3. Suk: Praga

Many Czech composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced the spirit of nationalism: Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Josef Suk. An easy choice here would have been Bedrich Smetana’s monumental series of tone poems, Má Vlast, but instead I have chosen Suk’s single-movement tone poem, written in 1904, about Bohemia’s greatest city.


4. Strauss: On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Though in the form of a waltz,  “Waltz King” Johann Strauss Jr.’s is nothing less than a ten-minute tone poem about his beloved Vienna.


5. Beethoven: Germania

Ludwig van Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony, the famous “Eroica,” to Napoleon, but, disenchanted when the Frenchman proclaimed himself Emperor, the composer ripped the dedication from the cover of the score. A decade later, Beethoven, caught up in the German nationalist spirit sweeping Vienna with the allied victory over Napoleonic France, composed music for the final scene of a patriotic opera, called Die Gute Nachricht (The Good News). Germania celebrates the work of Prussian King Frederick William III and Emperor Francis of Austria in defeating Napoleon and uniting the German princes:

Germania, Germania,
Thou stand′st before us formidably.
Whenever German courage is called German and free,
Gratitude shall be expressed for Frederick William.
He was firm like a wall of iron.
He shall be praised, Hail to thee, Germania….

Germania, Germania,
How dost thou stand forever and ever.
What desire thought in every individual,
Who brought it together?
Francis, Emperor Francis – Victory!
He shall be praised, and Hail to thee, Germania.


6. Respighi: Roman Festivals

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi wrote this noisy piece, the last of the tone poems of his “Roman trilogy” (the others being “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome”) in 1928. It portrays scenes from his adopted city’s past and present and is divided into four sections: “Circuses” depicts the gladiatorial games and the sacrificing of Christians in the Circus Maximus; “Jubilee” portrays the journey of medieval Christian pilgrims to the Holy City; “October Festival” dramatizes the dancing, hunting, and singing at harvest season; “Epiphany” captures the mood of celebration among revelers in Rome’s Piazza Navona on the eve of the Christian feast.


7. Sibelius: Finlandia

Easily his most famous composition, composer Jean Sibelius wrote this piece in 1899-1900 to stir patriotism among his fellow Finns, as they chafed under the domination of the Russian Empire. The original version, called “Finland Awakens,” was the sixth part of a suite of music Sibelius wrote for a tableau-drama on Finnish history, the occasion being the annual Press Celebrations. Beginning in a spirit of foreboding, Finlandia transitions mid-way into a heroic call to arms, ending with a  hymn-like tune that Sibelius fashioned into a separate patriotic piece. The version below includes the lyrics that were appended to the piece and accepted by Sibelius.

Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!

Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!


8. Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia

Alexander Borodin wrote this piece in 1880 to accompany one scene of a living tableau of scenes of Russian history and life during the silver jubilee celebrations of the rule of Tsar Alexander II. In the Steppes of Central Asia a caravan moving across the plains under the protection of Russian troops. Though the Tsar cancelled the anniversary festivities due to an assassination attempt on his life, Borodin’s short and evocative piece quickly became a concert favorite and has remained popular ever since.


9. Elgar: Cockaigne (“In London Town”)

The English composer Edward Elgar wrote this programmatic overture about turn-of-the-century London—where he and his wife lived for a short time—in 1901, stating that it is meant to depict “the sights a pair of lovers encounter during an afternoon’s stroll in that city.” The overture is titled after the nickname for London, “Cockaigne” being the medieval, mythical land of delights and plenty.


10. De Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Originally written for solo piano, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla orchestrated Noches en los Jardines de España for piano and orchestra in 1915, calling it a series of “symphonic impressions.” It is divided into three sections: “Generalife,” which describes the gardens of the summer palace of Alhambra; “Danza Lejana” (“A Distant Dance”), evoking an exotic dance in an unspecified garden; “En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba” (“In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba”), which paints a scene of gypsy dancing.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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