Frederick A. Binkholder, Artistic Director

Jinsun Cho, Assistant Director

Program Notes for Harmony of Angels

Parker Jayne, with notes from Kevin Siegfried

Today’s Chorale program reflects Artistic Director Frederick Binkholder’s growing interest in traditional music – music that arises from the daily lives of ordinary people, rather than composed for the concert stage – and how modern composers and arrangers have interpreted this music. Fred’s varied programs for last year’s Chorale season, called Kindred Voices, featured settings of traditional music for the winter solstice from a variety of countries, American shape note tunes, and a setting of the Orthodox liturgy based on centuries-old oral chant from the Republic of Georgia. Earlier concerts featured traditional vocal music from Bulgaria and several programs of American vocal jazz. Fred’s program for today’s concert, called Harmony of Angels, focuses on the music of the American Shakers, as interpreted by New England composer Kevin Siegfried, the Chorale’s composer-in-residence and one of the foremost interpreters of Shaker music.

The American Shakers were the most successful and long-lasting of the American utopians. Although only a few remain today, Shakers have lived and practiced their faith in dedicated communities continuously since the end of the American Revolution. In the 19th century they were sometimes accepted, but often ridiculed for their worship practices, denial of private property ownership, adherence to celibacy, and pacifism. In the 20th century they came to symbolize American ideals of equality, practical ingenuity, self-sufficiency, craftsmanship, religious faith, and hard work. They became uniquely known for producing domestic objects and an architecture of simple and enduring beauty that many consider an essential part of American art. Although interacting often with “The World,” Shakers viewed all of daily life as a spiritual gift to be led in a manner that has been described as radical gentleness.

An original group of 8 Shakers arrived from England in 1774, led by the charismatic “Mother Ann,” Ann Lee. In 1787, they began establishing independent communities from Maine to Indiana and Kentucky. At their height before the Civil War, approximately 6,000 Shakers lived in 19 substantial communities. The number slowly dwindled after the war, and most communities closed during the 20th century, a consequence of urbanization, industrialization, and celibacy. Today, three Shakers live in the one community that remains open at Sabbathday Lake in Maine, originally established in 1794.

The music of the Shakers is less well known than their furniture and domestic objects, with one major exception - Aaron Copland’s setting of the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” originally composed for Martha Graham’s 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. Although Copland’s setting of this Shaker tune is now widely regarded as quintessentially “American,” the tune was virtually unknown to non-Shakers previously, as was and is most of the large quantity of music which the Shakers produced.

Early Shaker music was largely unaccompanied songs sung in unison. Many of the songs were meant to support and accompany group dancing, which was an essential element of Shaker worship until dying out by the end of the 19th century. As the words to “Simple Gifts,” a dance tune, advise, one should not be ashamed “to bow and to bend” but “turn, turn … til by turning we come ‘round right.” Shaker worship involved dances of standardized patterns of lines, circles or squares in repeating patterns that could last for several hours. Shaker dances and music were communal and contributed to group solidarity not only within a community but were exchanged freely with other distant Shaker communities. However, for the early Shakers and later during a period of intense spiritual revival in the 1830s and 1840s, dance could also take the form of spontaneous whirling, jumping, spinning, speaking in tongues, or falling to the floor in an expression of individual religious ecstasy, from which was derived the Shaker name.

Shaker songs number in the thousands, many written down in a unique “letteral” notation system the Shakers developed. The earliest Shaker songs grew out of Anglo-American musical roots, often substituting “vocables,” or wordless syllables for texts that did not fit with Shaker theology. However, the Shakers quickly began developing their own songs with texts that reflected Shaker values. Some were explicitly composed, but many were “received” by individual Shakers, acting as “instruments” for transmitting these “gift songs” to the community. Many of these included texts in syllables of a spirit language. Dances and drawings were similarly received -- the drawing on the cover of the program is a well-known Shaker “gift drawing” from 1854, the Tree of Life, by Hannah Cohoon, a young Shaker woman from the Shaker village at Hancock, Massachusetts.

In the second half of the 19th century, as their communities declined, Shaker music began to resemble the music of Protestant religions of the time. By the end of the century, the Shakers were publishing their music in hymnals in parts with piano accompaniment, with few if any songs being “received.” Scholars began studying, collecting, and documenting Shaker art and music in the first half of the 20th century. While direct access to Shaker practices of music and dance no longer exist, Shaker scholarship and interest in Shaker life and objects has continued to grow. Several of the Shaker communities have become museums, including Pleasant Hill, near Lexington, Kentucky and Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts.

Kevin Siegfried first encountered Shaker music in 1995 while visiting the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. He began arranging Shaker songs for choir in 1997, and published his first collection of Shaker songs in 1998. One of the unique aspects of Siegfried’s Shaker arrangements is the loving attention given to the original unison melodies, and his respect for the character and aesthetics of Shaker folk song style. In 2001, the Tudor Choir, a professional ensemble based in Seattle, released a CD of Siegfried’s Shaker arrangements entitled “Gentle Words” which is widely admired, leading to performances by many amateur and professional ensembles across the country.

For the last few years, Siegfried has been affiliated with Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, and has been doing research on music traditions at Canterbury and presenting performances based on his research. In 2014, Canterbury Shaker Village commissioned Siegfried to write a string quartet entitled “Land of Pure Delight” based exclusively on Shaker song and dances. It was performed in the meetinghouse at Canterbury in conjunction with the museum exhibit “Shaker Traditions, Contemporary Translations.” Siegfried has also befriended the surviving Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine and is collaborating with Brother Arnold Hadd for an upcoming performance at Sabbathday Lake as part of the Maine Festival of American Music on June 25, 2015.

Many composers in Europe (for example, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Grainger, Bartok, Kodaly, Dvorak, Smetana, Orff, and the Georgain Paliashvili) participated directly in collecting original native material, which they used to create a national sound. In contrast, in America, original research into folk and traditional music has generally been the province of ethnomusicologists rather than composers. Aaron Copland, for example, found the tune to “Simple Gifts” in a book of Shaker tunes published in 1940 by Edward Deming Andrews, a notable Shaker scholar, which Copland ran across in a library near Tanglewood.

For this reason, Siegfried’s research into Shaker traditions at Canterbury and his Shaker compositions, in particular, Angel of Light, the cantata being premiered in these concerts, is noteworthy for an American composer. Angel of Light results from Siegfried delving deeply into music from a distinctive period of Shaker history known as the “Era of Manifestions” (or alternatively the period of “Mother’s Work”) which occurred during from 1837 to 1847 when Shaker communities were caught up in a wave of intense spiritualism, characterized by an unparalleled outpouring of songs which were “gifted” to individual Shakers in moments of spiritual ecstasy. In his cantata, Siegfried attempts to capture as closely as possible this rhapsodic and visionary music, as it moves seamlessly between English and the unknown tongues of angels.