The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: What classical music goes best with Thanksgiving dinner – or eating and entertaining in general? | November 24, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 is Thanksgiving Day in the US.

So it seems a good time to pose a timely question: What music can you put on in the background as you are socializing and eating?

To many critics and musicians, it is heresy even to suggest that music can be used as background to, say, a dinner or even a holiday feast like Thanksgiving.

Well, too bad for the purists, I say. They lose the argument before it starts.

Even NPR recently asked readers what specific music they identify with specific foods and wines:

I won’t go that far or get that specific, although I wouldn’t mind your suggestions.

And it is certainly true that too often these days music is reduced to Muzak (“Not Just a Melody But a Management Tool” was the corporate motto) or to elevator music or iPod selections or supermarket and mall music.

But even serious composers recognized the social role of music as entertainment linked to other events in a secondary role. After all, life doesn’t always offer us the time to focus exclusively on one thing. We didn’t invent multi-tasking, and the musicians I know tend to be very social.

Besides, sometimes the musical background can even add to the enjoyment.

So it was that Haydn and Mozart composed serenades and divertimenti for courtly events (below, Mozart playing at a salon concert). Bach composed his various suites, which were heard while others talked. Telemann composed a ton of Table Music. And Handel wrote some pretty congenial music.

Over the year, by test and trial, I have found that certain music works better than others. So for what they are worth, I offer those lessons in a holiday mood of sharing and helpfulness.

For example, I generally avoid songs and choral music because the works – even in a foreign language – create cross-interference with the conversation.

I like works that are short and that are familiar or seem familiar, even if they are not, so you can tune in and tune out and then tune in again.

I also avoid larger ensemble like chamber or symphony orchestras, which have to be played pretty loud if you want to hear the various parts and sections.

I also generally avoid music with a very wide range of dynamic contrasts because you either hear loud music or silence and the back-and-forth of it all is annoying. That puts a lot of Beethoven and Romantic music off-limits, to say nothing of Mahler (below) and Bruckner, who were not exactly party boys in any case.

I find that baroque music and chamber music generally work best, and I find that music that tends to even dynamics and with predominately middle and lower registers (say, the cello or the piano) works well.

So here are some of my favorites to play with the volume adjust just loud enough that you can hear it if you focus or ignore if you want:

Scarlatti sonatas on PIANO: The harpsichord is too twangy and unusual and sharp to blend in. (I like recordings by Andras Schiff, Alexandre Tharaud and Vladimir Horowitz among others.)

Sonatas, concerti and concerti grossi for strings and winds (generallty not brass) by all sorts of Baroque composers including Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Corelli, Geminiani and Telemann.

Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions: (I like Peter Serkin and Till Fellner, who offer very different interpretations of them.) I also DJ Bach’s cello suites (Jian Wang), French suites (Andras Schiff, below playing) and English suites (Murray Perahia).

Mozart’s violin sonatas (I like Arthur Grumiaux and Hilary Hahn’s recordings) and Schubert’s violin music (Pamela Frank).

Handel’s keyboard suites on piano (I like Keith Jarrett and Murray Perahia.)

In a more modern and voluptuous or sensual vein, I love Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartets and Quintets (Pascal Roge and Ysaye Quartet). And solo guitar music is often terrific, though I generally avoid harp music.

There are more, but that will do for now.

I know that some of you will still not be convinced. But there are many more non-feast days than feast days in a given year. So there is plenty of time to focus just of music without worrying about go food or conversation.

So Happy Thanksgiving!

And let me know: What music it do you prefer to play when entertaining?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Thanks, Jacob! Good suggestions!!

    Comment by Tricia Peters — October 16, 2020 @ 5:47 pm

  2. I second your choice of the Faure quartets and quintets, and Scarlatti on the piano. I’d add the Brandenburg concertos (duh), the Goldberg variations, and the Liebeslieder waltzes.

    Comment by Ann B. — November 24, 2011 @ 7:44 am

    • Hi Ann,
      As usual, you make great choices and offer great additions.
      I thought I had covered on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos when I mentioned various concerti and concerti grossi from the Baroque era. But if it isn’t clear to you, then it probably wasn’t clear to many. So thank you for getting specific.
      I too would add the Goldbergs, although I generally want to concentrate on the variations and development when I hear them — which is the same reason I did NOT include The Well-Tempered Clavier. But they certainly are primary in Bach’s keyboard works, which I am big on.
      And finally the Brahms love waltzes are fine, but to my ear, the words interfere a bit with conversations — kind of a cross-conversation — and are a bit Romantic for my taste at gatherings. Otherwise, though, they are indeed enjoyable and suitable for many social occasions, especially Valentine’s Day!
      Happy listening and Happy Thanksgiving.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 24, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  3. Your suggestions are fine if you’re approaching Thanksgiving as another dinner party. My own favorites for this are the Handel harp and lute concertos. But if you approach Thanksgiving as a unique American holiday, it should be early American composers. The real music of Thanksgiving, of course, is Congregational hymns.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — November 24, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    • Hi Ron,
      All are great suggestions.
      I thought I covered the Handel with the concerti and concerti grossi from the Baroque era. But it is good to get specific titles.
      As for American music, that suggestion is on point if the point is to celebrate the Americanness of Thanksgiving (although I believe that Canadians also have a national Thanksgiving Day).
      But I was aiming more for background music to play for Thanksgiving or any other holiday or social occasion.
      Happy listening and Happy Thanksgiving.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 24, 2011 @ 10:05 am

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