Shaker Images: A Contemporary Adventure Into the Past

by Gwyneth Walker

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Read notes for Shaker Tunes (1994) for brass quintet

[The following article is reprinted from "The New England Organist", November/December 1994.]

(Photograph of the Constitution Brass Quintet: Dale Camara, David Brubaker, William Keck, Ben Edwards, and Jo Anne Edwards.)

A photo of the Constitution Brass Quintet

In 1992 I responded to a call-for-scores announcement in the newsletter of the Vermont Composers's Consortium. This was a request by the Constitution Brass Quintet of Vermont for music written by Vermont composers. Since I had previously composed several short works for brass, and was eager to collaborate with the Constitution Brass Quintet, I submitted scores and tapes.

Almost immediately, I was contacted by Ben Edwards, trombonist in the ensemble, initiating discussion of a commission -- fee, duration of work, date of completion, exclusive performance rights by the players, etc. Once these terms were settled, the Quintet applied for and received funding from the Vermont Community Foundation (commission fee), the Vermont Music Teachers' Association (additional commission and performance assistance) and the Vermont Council on the Arts (Artist Development Grant -- audio recording fee). And I began to consider the nature of the work I would be creating.

I decided upon a suite of movements based on songs of the Shakers -- the religious sect which thrived in the Northeastern United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. These were colorful, beautiful and even humorous songs which ought to lend themselves well to contemporary adaptations. I had done similar 'updating' of Baptist hymns in my Braintree Quintet for woodwinds (with audience singing) which had proven very popular. Thus I was encouraged in my Shaker 'venture'.

Although I was familiar with a few Shaker melodies such as "Simple Gifts" and "I Will Bow and Be Simple", I knew that research into the wider body of Shaker tunes was my next step. And thus I contacted the staff of the Shaker Museum in Enfield, New Hampshire. Song books and cassettes were ordered and received. Help was also provided by a Norwich, Vermont choral director specializing in Shaker music, Mary Ann Wilde. Ms. Wilde sent me handwritten copies of several of the melodies not found in the song books.

I listened to and read through many Shaker tunes in order to select five songs which offered a variety of moods and sentiments. Since I am a composer who values energy, beauty, humor, spirituality, and familiarity of the music, I selected the following tunes: "Welcome, Welcome Precious Gospel Kindred" (energy); "I Will Bow and Be Simple" (beauty); "Followers of the Lamb" (humor); "I Never Did Believe" (spirituality); and "Simple Gifts" (familiarity).

I should emphasize that the Constitution Brass Quintet placed no restrictions upon the content of the newly-commissioned work. They had liked my previous brass writing, and simply let me create what I felt would be a good work for them. My suggestion of the Shaker Tunes led to a positive response from the players, perhaps mixed with some bafflement as to what exactly I would be writing! And indeed, they would need to wait for nearly a year until the total concept was brought to reality. This project evolved into a long-term work-in-progress, a collaboration of composer, brass players, singers, choir directors and Shaker music scholars.

Most composers work from the general to the specific. And this was the case in my writing. I planned the overall suite -- the ordering of the songs, the tonalities involved, general style of each movement, continuity as well as variety of the tunes, durations of each movement, duration of the whole -- before beginning to place notes on the page. Once I had the broad concept formed, I began my writing.

Since I had several other commissions ongoing (a string quartet, two choral works), the brass music would be done in installments. And this would allow for ample time to confer with the players and to incorporate their suggestions (mostly technical and idomatic) into the score.

I began with the "Welcome" song which I composed in June, 1993. The premiere was given in early July, and although I was not able to attend the actual performance (the string quartet was also premiered the same week in a distant locale!), I worked with the players in several rehearsals. Audience reaction to the new music was very enthusiastic, and the players were pleased with the first 'installment' of their commission. This encouraged me to work on the Shaker Tunes as much as possible. And there was not much time to wait, since we were scheduled to present the first three movements at the Quad-State Music Teachers' Association Conference in Plymouth, NH in October, 1993.

I explained to the Constitution Brass Quintet that my concept for the Shaker Tunes included audience (or choir) singing of the original Shaker melodies preceding each of the brass variations. This would not only involve the audience in the performance, and be enjoyable for anyone who likes to sing (!), but would also lend some historical authenticity to the process of combining the past with the present.

Thus, I copied out the melodies and distributed them to the music teachers at the Conference. The premiere of the first three movements involved audience singing of each song -- "Welcome", "I Will Bow and Be Simple", and "Followers of the Lamb" -- followed by my contemporary brass settings.

This 'second installment' premiere worked beautifully and showed the players and the composer that the singing integrated well with the brass music. The music teachers were enthusiastic singers (!), and their joy 'infected' the playing. Moreover, the one humorous movement, "Followers of the Lamb", (complete with tuba cadenza) was met with unanimous laughter. Only live concert experience will serve as a test of this element of music!

The first three movements were completed. In response to audience questions about the background of the individual Shaker songs, I located a scholar of Shaker music, Roger Hall of Stoughton, MA. Roger has compiled, transcribed and researched Shaker melodies, and published numerous books and articles about this music. Anyone doing research into Shaker music, or even attempting to create contemporary arrangements, would find him an invaluable resource.

With Roger's help, I was able to provide dates and locations of the origins of the melodies I had selected for my suite. And I have continued to contact Roger with additional questions concerning the background of my material.

Movements IV and V, "I Never Did Believe" and "Simple Gifts", were completed during the Winter of 1993-4 in preparation for an April 1994 premiere of the entire set of Shaker Tunes in Warren, VT. Several rehearsals were spent fine-tuning the music. Once again, I listened to the suggestions of the players and incorporated their ideas (articulation, refinements of tempi) into the score.

The location of the concert would be the Warren United Church, a lovely historic site, ideal for Shaker music! Thus, I asked the choir director, Virginia Roth, if her choir might be available to sing each of the Shaker melodies before the playing of the brass adaptations. She responded with enthusiasm and was able to assemble and rehearse a group of 8 singers. With considerable care, I created simple SATB a capella arrangements of the melodies. The goal was sparse-yet-graceful choral settings that would introduce the songs with beauty while not detracting from the far more adventurous brass adaptations to follow.

The premiere of all five movements, with singing, was extremely successful. The small choir was able to master the SATB arrangements in one rehearsal, and performed with confidence and fine singing. The audience was encouraged to sing along with the choir on the refrains of the songs, which they did easily. And the ensuing brass music followed immediately on the closing notes of each song.

The creation of the Shaker Tunes for brass quintet spanned a year. At several stages, revisions were made according to live performance evaluations. Attention was given not only to the brass writing, but also to refining the choral arrangements to the point where they could be performed comfortably by a small choir of average singers.

The completed work adds up to about 1/2 hour of music, with 20 minutes of brass music and 10 minutes of singing. This has been used often as the second half of a concert program. The intended audience spans all ages and all levels of musical sophistication.

The reaction of many of the choir directors has been that this music can and has been used with a worship service. Certainly, the choir can sing the a capella arrangements as they wish. However, the singing followed by the brass playing is also suited to sacred use. The "Welcome" song makes a lively prelude, while "I Will Bow and Be Simple" and "I Never Did Believe" can be performed as anthem and offertory. And "Simple Gifts", with congregation singing followed by the rousing brass adaptation, might be a festive postlude. This is music from the American sacred tradition. The tunes are rough-hewn and direct. The brass music is lively and clean.

I have enjoyed my year spent creating the Shaker Tunes for brass quintet. What started out as a 'generic' commission for brass quintet led to a project which incorporated singing and Shaker music. It provided music which is equally suited to concert hall and church presentations. And although brass quintets are often brought into churches for special occasions, they do not usually perform American music from the 'folk' tradition, as the Shaker music is often considered. Thus, the Shaker Tunes are somewhat unique to the repertoire.

The process of arranging pre-existing musical material is of interest to me, although I do not specialize in this genre. Most of my works are newly-composed. Yet the idea of taking musical ideas from the past and looking at them in a contemporary was is intriguing.

There are many approaches to creating arrangements, and these range from rather straightforward transcriptions to idosyncratic 'departures', in the manner of Charles Ives. I tend towards the latter. This is not by choice so much as by personality. I find it impossible to 'represent' what has gone before. And I seem to find humor and character hiding behind almost any musical gesture!

Thus, it is my inclination and pleasure to search out what I feel to be the essence and the charm of each song and then try to enhance these traits through new adaptations. For this reason, I prefer to describe these contributions as 'updated versions' rather than arrangements. I shall explain.

The opening "Welcome" song is a joyful song of greeting which makes the listener feel welcome through the repetition of the word 'welcome' in a bouncy 6/8 meter. I envisioned the Shakers welcoming new members to their community with waving of hands and leaps of joy. Therefore, in the brass version, while the melody is given to the horn, the trumpets answer with 'welcome' (2-note) patterns initiated by grace notes to signify the group waving and shouting "welcome!" Later the trumpets flutter-tongue (i.e., 'wave') impishly. The 'leaping for joy' may be heared in the 'jumping' tripled counterrhythms recurrent in this movement.

In contrast, "I Will Bow and Be Simple" is a song of sparse beauty. The melody is presented first as a solo by trumpet I, then a duet between the two trumpets. Allowing this music to unfold slowly seemed the most appropriate approach. And the implicit harmonization of the tune, which reaches the lowered Mediant (Gb in the key of Eb major) near the end, is emphasized in the brass version by an entire middle section created in that tonality. The music ends with the tuba alone on a high Eb (Eb1) as the other instruments fade away. I felt that the ending should portray the same 'solitary beauty' as the opening, perhaps with the heighted poignancy of an instrument stranded at the limits of its range.

"Simple Gifts" presented a challenge in finding a new interpretation, since so many fine arrangements already exist. I settled upon a rhapsodic approach for the opening leading into a very lively presentation, with occasional jazz elements interspersed. The tune shifts among the instruments, but is nearly always present in one form or another (as requested by my brass players!). I have always considred "Simple Gifts" as a quintessentially 'American' song, and the brash rhythms and open harmonies which I selected aim to enhance this quality.

The Shaker Tunes for brass quintet may be viewed as character pieces based on Shaker melodies. Liberties are taken with the original songs. But the tunes are truly loved and enjoyed! The goal was to create new music for brass quintet -- both entertaining and sincere -- which might bring renewed life and attention to the Shaker music of the past.