BOSTON — Six of the seven members of the last active Shaker community in the United States are heading from rural Maine to New York City Nov. 17 to give "thanks to our Father-Mother God" through song, says one of the six, known as Sister Francis.
The concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall is also intended to let the world know that Shakers still exist and to pay "a great tribute to the Shakers who have gone on before us," she added in a telephone chat earlier this week from Sabbathday Day Lake, Maine. "Music is an important part of our lives.... We're called upon to make a joyful noise to the Lord."
Shakers are widely admired for their practical and elegant furniture designs, clever inventions like clothes pins - and for a single piece of music: "Simple Gifts." (" 'Tis the gift to be simple/ 'tis the gift to be free;/ 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.") Written by Elder Joseph Brackett around 1875, it became a memorable theme in Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" (1944), perhaps the best-known piece of American symphonic music ever written.
Less well-known is that the Shakers are a communal, egalitarian, celibate, and pacifist Christian religion (officially the United Society of Believers) that came to America from England in 1774 under the leadership of a woman, Mother Ann Lee.
Several years ago, Joel Cohen, director of the Boston Camerata, a musical group dedicated to performance of early music, went to Sabbathday Lake to do research in the extensive musical library there. Eventually, the Shakers invited him to noon dinner. The result was an idea to collaborate on authentic performances of Shaker music. A CD called "Simple Gifts" (Erato, 1995) followed.
The Shakers' New York debut (joined by the Harvard University Choir and the Boston Camerata) will emphasize songs of harvest and Thanksgiving. The groups will perform the music in the Shaker way: unaccompanied and in unison.
Its roots, Cohen says, hark back to medieval and Renaissance times. "It sounds archaic," with a singing style that is "very energetic, very focused."
Shaker society "cultivated musicmaking," Cohen says. The thousands of their songs ("a song for every occasion," one Shaker declared) now being uncovered and performed once again are "among the most interesting American music," he says.
Shaker music "cries out to be performed on its own terms, in a simple, nonexploitative context," Cohen writes in the notes accompanying "Simple Gifts." The New York concert is a wonderful step in that direction.
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