Shaker Studies

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The Shakers considered music to be an essential component of the religious experience. The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services.

 

In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it to be important to record musical inspirations as they occurred. Scribes, many of whom had no formal musical training, used a form of music notation for this purpose: it used letters of the alphabet, often not positioned on a staff, along with a simple notation of conventional rhythmic values. This method has a curious, and coincidental, similarity to some ancient Greek music notation.

Many of the lyrics to Shaker tunes consist of syllables and words from unknown tongues, the musical equivalent of glossolalia. It has been surmised that many of them were imitated from the sounds of Native American languages, as well as from the songs of African slaves, especially in the southernmost of the Shaker communities, but in fact the melodic material is derived from European scales and modes.

Most early Shaker music is monodic, that is to say, composed of a single melodic line with no harmonization. The tunes and scales recall the folksongs of the British Isles, but since the music was written down and carefully preserved, it is "art" music of a special kind rather than folklore. Many melodies are of extraordinary grace and beauty, and the Shaker song repertoire, though still relatively little known, is an important part of the American cultural heritage and of world religious music in general.

Several hymnbooks with more conventional four-part harmonization were published by the Shakers in the late nineteenth century. These works are less strikingly original than the earlier, monodic repertoire.

The surviving Shakers sing songs drawn from both the earlier repertoire and the four part songbooks. They perform all of these unaccompanied, in single-line unison singing. The many recent, harmonized arrangements of older Shaker songs for choirs and instrumental groups mark a departure from traditional Shaker practice.

The most famous Shaker song is "Simple Gifts", which Aaron Copland used as a theme for variations in Appalachian Spring. The tune was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine in 1848. Many contemporary Christian denominations incorporate this tune into hymnals, under various names, including "Lord of the Dance," adapted in 1963 by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter.

Some scholars, such as Daniel W. Patterson and Roger L. Hall, have compiled books of these songs, and groups have been formed to sing the songs and perform the dances. There are recordings available of Shaker songs, both documentation of singing by the Shakers themselves, as well as songs recorded by other groups (see external links). Two widely distributed commercial recordings by The Boston Camerata, "Simple Gifts" (1995) and "The Golden Harvest" (2000), were recorded at the Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with active cooperation from the surviving Shakers, whose singing can be heard at several points on both recordings. 

 

Information found at Wikipedia

 

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