For many years, one of the go-to songs in my repertoire as a lyrical tenor has been the moving and stately oratorio “Thanks Be To Thee,” attributed to G.F. Handel. As I was asked to give a solo performance during the Feast of Tabernacles with about a week’s notice, with no reliable pianist, it was a fairly obvious choice, one of several pieces that I am willing to sing on relatively short notice where needed. I do not wish to talk about the performance, which went surpassingly well for having had its date changed and for the person in charge of the cd accompaniment being absent until services and virtually no time being available for practice and absolutely none for a sound check, but rather I would like to focus my attention today on a matter of some importance, and that is the fact that this lovely oratorio, which has versions for both a solo tenor with a baritone range as well, as I have, and also for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) for the usual four-part choral harmony, was not written by G.F. Handel himself at all.
I am no stranger to writing about songs with dodgy histories , and this song has a history that is dodgy for all the wrong reasons. There is nothing objectionable at all to be found in the lyrics or music to the song, which has a lovely, if often slowly played, 3/4 musical accompaniment and lyrics that reflect on God’s tender care and the deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea. There are no troublesome samples to be taken into consideration, no shocking distance between the sweetness of the lyrics and the troubling nature of the composer’s personal life, no associations with Hitler’s Germany or anything unsettling like that to deal with. What makes this song particularly dodgy is that it was attributed to G.F. Handel without, in fact, having been written by him. Falsely considered to have been a solo tenor aria as part of Handel’s oratorio Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), the piece was possibly instead written by the largely unknown Siegfried Ochs . It should be noted both that the origins of the piece are cloudy but that the piece is almost assuredly not a genuine Handel piece but rather a Handelian one that was created centuries after his death and being largely unknown until the 19th century, when for some reason it pops up in association with Handel’s Nabucco.
The obvious question that one has with such a spurious song is why in the world someone would associate it centuries after the fact with a long-dead composer. For one, it must be admitted that there is far more interest in a piece when it is associated with someone whose music has the reputation of Handel then when it comes from an obscure but talented composer from a more recent period. Unfortunately, works are not always judged on their own merits or the lack thereof but on the merits of the people attached to them. When seen as part of a larger narrative in Nabucco, there is a certain grandeur that can be found in “Thanks Be To Thee” that may not be as evident if the piece is taken on its own merits in the eyes of some. The piece would likely never have become popular or part of my own repertoire had it been seen as it was from the beginning, namely as the work of an obscure German composer who was inspired by the works of Handel and tried his own hand at various Handelian works. Whether or not this is just, it is clear that the work has gained a great deal of attention precisely because of its spurious connection, just as some of the disputed plays of Shakespeare written in association with Fletcher towards the end of his career likely gained far more attention because of the question of authorship than they would have gained because of the virtue of the works themselves.
That said, what value is there in “Thanks Be To Thee” if its attribution to Handel and its somewhat murky history is sorted out properly? There is the value of the song itself, a stately piece of music written in 3/4, with a lot of repetition, the requirement of strong breath control, the gentleness and tenderness of its music as well as its lyrics, and the fact that it remains a solid song for tenors or for ensembles and choirs. Nothing about the song is in fact harmed when its origins are properly understood–it is a song that can stand on its own merits even without the name of Handel attached to it. Unlike some songs which are irreparably harmed once the truth of them is known, this is simply an example of a song that for some reason got attached to Handel likely as a way of gaining borrowed laurels in terms of attention. Handel’s reputation as composer is not hurt by lacking this piece, nor is this piece without considerable worth on its own. It is merely those who either fraudulently or mistakenly attributed it to Handel in the first place who deserve any harm from having attached this lovely piece to Handel’s body of work in the first place. As for the rest of us, we can either sing or play along to or listen to this lovely song depending on our interests in the matter.
 See, for example:
 Indeed, a website devoted to G.F. Handel, http://gfhandel.org/handel/faqs.html, has this thoughtful comment to make about the tangled history of “Thanks Be To Thee” or its German equivalents:
When did Handel compose ‘Thanks Be to Thee’, ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’, or ‘Solo con te’?
Although choral publications or recordings with Jessye Norman, Sarah Brightman, or Barabara Streisand attribute these works to Handel, it doesn’t appear Handel composed any of them. ‘Thanks Be to Thee’ is said to be an arrangement of Handel’s ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’. However, this is a spurious Handelian work. References to ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ being composed by Handel date from the late 19th century in Germany. The true origins of ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ remain unknown. Channing LeFebvre arranged ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ for organ. Siegfried Ochs is generally attributed with the first arrangement of ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ resulting in ‘Thanks Be to Thee’. ‘Thanks Be to Thee’ was arranged by many other composers, including Vogel, Page, Houseknecht, Christiansen, Harris, Shaw, Causey, Bement, Wilson, Wiley, Forsblad, Nichols, et al. Although the origins of ‘Thanks Be to Thee’ and ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ are cloudy, Handel scholars are convinced that Handel did not compose either work. (Note: For more information about this spurious Handelian association, see Martin Staehelin’s paper titled ‘Dank sei Dir, Herr’ Zur Erklärung einer Händel-Fälschung des frühen zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts from the Göttinger Händel-Beiträge, volume 2, 1986. pp. 194-206.) With regard to ‘Solo con te’, this is a spurious Handelian work as well. Chiara Ferraù is credited with the lyrics.