Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire. Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition at the USC Thornton School of Music and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony. He is the recipient of many awards, including first prize in the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2, and a 2012 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ticheli wrote Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs in 2002 on a commission from the Tapp Middle School Band in Powder Springs, Georgia, and their director, Erin Cole. He provides extensive program notes in the score, which are also quoted on the Manhattan Beach Music website (which also features full recordings of the entire piece). Here are the relevant bits, written by Ticheli himself (with links added by me):
The Shakers were a religious sect who splintered from a Quaker community in the mid-1700’s in Manchester, England. Known then derisively as “Shaking Quakers” because of the passionate shaking that would occur during their religious services, they were viewed as radicals, and their members were sometimes harassed and even imprisoned by the English. One of those imprisoned, Ann Lee, was named official leader of the church upon her release in 1772. Two years later, driven by her vision of a holy sanctuary in the New World, she led a small group of followers to the shores of America where they founded a colony in rural New York.
The Shakers were pacifists who kept a very low profile, and their membership increased only modestly during the decades following their arrival. At their peak in the 1830’s, there were some 6,000 members in nineteen communities interspersed between Maine and Kentucky. Soon after the Civil War their membership declined dramatically. Their practice of intense simplicity and celibacy accounts for much of their decline.
Today there is only one active Shaker community remaining, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. They maintain a Shaker Library, a Shaker Museum, and a website at www.shaker.lib.me.us.
The Shakers were known for their architecture, crafts, furniture, and perhaps most notably, their songs. Shaker songs were traditionally sung in unison without instrumental accompaniment. Singing and dancing were vital components of Shaker worship and everyday life. Over 8,000 songs in some 800 songbooks were created, most of them during the 1830’s to 1860’s in Shaker communities throughout New England.
THE CREATION OF SIMPLE GIFTS: FOUR SHAKER SONGS
My work is built from four Shaker melodies – a sensuous nature song, a lively dance tune, a tender lullaby, and most famously, “Simple Gifts,” the hymn that celebrates the Shaker’s love of simplicity and humility. In setting these songs, I sought subtle ways to preserve their simple, straightforward beauty. Melodic freshness and interest were achieved primarily through variations of harmony, of texture, and especially, of orchestration.
The first movement is a setting of “In Yonder Valley”, generally regarded to be the oldest surviving Shaker song with text. This simple hymn in praise of nature is attributed to Father James Whittaker (1751 – 87), a member of the small group of Shakers who emigrated to America in 1774. My setting enhances the image of spring by turning the first three notes of the tune into a birdcall motive.
The second movement, “Dance,” makes use of a tune from an 1830’s Shaker manuscript. Dancing was an important part of Shaker worship, and tunes such as this were often sung by a small group of singers while the rest of the congregation danced. One interesting feature in my setting occurs near the end of the movement, when the brasses state the tune at one-quarter speed in counterpoint against the woodwinds who state it at normal speed.
The third movement is based on a Shaker lullaby, “Here Take This Lovely Flower,” found in Dorothy Berliner Commin’s extraordinary collection, Lullabies of the World, and in Daniel W. Patterson’s monumental collection, The Shaker Spiritual. This song is an example of the phenomenon of the gift song, music received from spirits by Shaker mediums while in trance (see pp. 316 ff. in Patterson, op cit., for a detailed account, and also Harold E. Cook’s Shaker Music: A Manifestation of American Folk Culture, pp. 52 ff.). Although the Shakers practiced celibacy, there were many children in their communities, including the children of recent converts as well as orphans whom they took in. Like many Shaker songs, this lullaby embodies the Shakers’ ideal of childlike simplicity.
The finale is a setting of the Shakers’ most famous song, “Simple Gifts,” sometimes attributed to Elder Joseph Bracket (1797 – 1882) of the Alfred, Maine community, and also said (in Lebanon, New York, manuscript) as having been received from a Negro spirit at Canterbury, New Hampshire, making “Simple Gifts” possibly a visionary gift song. It has been used in hundreds of settings, most notably by Aaron Copland in the brilliant set of variations which conclude his Appalachian Spring. Without ever quoting him, my setting begins at Copland’s doorstep, and quickly departs. Throughout its little journey, the tune is never abandoned, rarely altered, always exalted.
He also provides the lyrics for each song he uses:
In Yonder Valley
In yonder valley there flows sweet union;
Let us arise and drink our fill.
The winter’s past and the spring appears;
The turtle dove is in our land.
In yonder valley there flows sweet union;
Let us arise, and drink our fill.
Virgins cloth’d in a clean white garment,
How they move in a band of love,
Comforts flow in a mighty current,
We shall drink at the fountains above.
Yea, we will rejoice with freedom,
In this straight little narrow way,
Here is the fold and the lambs all feeding,
On this green we’ll skip and play.
Here Take this Lovely Flower
Here take this lovely flower
Thy mother sent to thee,
Cull’d from her lovely bower
Of sweet simplicity.
O place it near thy bosom
And keep it pure and bright,
For in such lovely flowers
The angels take delight.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free;
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.
The best YouTube performance of Simple Gifts comes in four separate videos, one for each movement, so that is how I will look at them, with the source material following each movement. Here is the first, “In Yonder Valley”:
Like bands, choirs also love Shaker songs. Here is a university chorus performing “In Yonder Valley”. Listen especially for how the words fall within the melody:
Ticheli calls the second movement “Dance”:
Commercial recordings of this tune exist under the title “Virgins Cloth’d in a Clean White Garment.” Alas, none have made it to YouTube.
Movement III is the sweet song “Here Take This Lovely Flower”:
Again, a choir puts the words to the music for us:
The final movement is based on perhaps the most famous of all the Shaker songs, “Simple Gifts”:
Here it is again, done simply by the Phoenix Boys Choir:
As Ticheli mentions in his notes, Aaron Copland helped to make “Simple Gifts” as famous as it is by using it in his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. For any composer looking to set “Simple Gifts”, Copland’s version is the elephant in the room, yet Ticheli does assert his independence quite well. Listen and compare:
Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.
Ticheli bio on wikipedia.
Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.
A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.