Tributes
Books and articles
CD Reviews
 
 
 

 

The Simplicity of Shaker Music

 

 

 

Shaker Music - An Introduction

By Roger Lee Hall

The television and newspaper journalists like to portray the Shakers as soon becoming extinct or already gone. While it is true there are only a few Shakers left, they remain busy with their religious life, as well as operating a library, museum and gift shop during the regular tourist season from May to October.

The last remaining Shaker community is located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. with an active Friends of the Shakers support group.

The music of the Shakers contains some of the most beautiful religious folk melodies from America's past. It is also among the oldest singing traditions in the USA and began in the 1780s. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Shakers had thousands of members in New York State, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and later on in Georgia and Florida.

For several centuries, from the 1780s to 1950s, there were over 10,000 Shaker tunes composed -- the largest output of any religious communal society in America.

Much of their music remains unknown today to the general public and musicians, except for the Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," which was first arranged by Aaron Copland.

It is often assumed that because it is folk music, all Shaker tunes are anonymous. Not true!

Many of them can be credited to a Shaker sister, such as the humility song,"Gentle Words" by Polly M. Rupe, or to a Shaker brother, like the dance song,"Come Life, Shaker Life" by Issachar Bates. Sometimes a Shaker hymn is divided between the sexes, for example, "The Humble Heart" from the Shaker community at Harvard, Massachusetts has a text by Eunice Wyeth and a tune by Thomas Hammond Jr.

Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of incorrect information spread around about Shaker music by writers who have failed to do enough research before writing their articles or books. They are seemingly unaware of the vast amount of music editions, arrangements and recordings available.

The most common error is classifying all Shaker music as traditional hymns or songs. That is incorrect and misleading. There are actually three broad categories of Shaker music:

Songs

Hymns

Anthems

It is not generally known that there were "white" (or Anglo-American) spirituals as well as "black" (or Afro-American) spirituals. Both types have a folklike, deeply emotional and sometimes frenzied connection between words and music.

Shaker tunes are examples of religious folk music, including lively dance tunes, "gift" songs, millennial hymns, prose anthems and other music types. They are best classified together as: Shaker spirituals.

 

Shaker "Letteral" Music Notation

From about 1820 until nearly the end of the 19th century, The Shakers used their own form of alphabet music notation known as the "letteral system." Here is an example of an early Shaker song using "letteral notation" --

"Father James's Song" (or "In Yonder Valley") was composed in 1787 by Father James Whittaker at Enfield, Connecticut, one of the original Shaker leaders who emigrated from England in 1774. It is believed to be the first complete Shaker song with words and music.

Shaker letteral notation can be explained using the above example. The pitches are the same as the letters indicate. Quarter notes have just the letter of the alphabet (like G). Eighth notes have a single line over them and sixteenth notes have a double line over them. Half notes have a line on the left or right side of the letter.

Thus, the first measure has g (dotted quarter note) and a (eighth note), then g (quarter note) and e-d (two eighth notes). The next measure begins on C (half note) then D and E (quarter notes). The entire tune is in 4/4 (or Common Time) indicated by two double lines at the beginning of the tune. The dotted lines indicate the sections to be repeated. Unlike later Shaker songs, this song does not have the same number of measures in the two sections (A & B). The first or A section has 6 measures and the second B section has 12 measures. Later Shaker songs usually have 8 measures for both A and B sections.

Here is the tune transcribed into modern notation, edited by Roger Hall:

© Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals,
Rochester, NY: Sampler Records Ltd., 1996

 


 

Shaker Songs

 

Shaker songs were the earliest ones and originated in the 1780s. They usually had only one verse, such as "Simple Gifts." Though the form is not always the same, they are often in two strains of 8 measures each with each section repeated with a form of AA + BB. The Shakers wrote songs throughout the 19th century and also, less frequently, in the 20th century.

The last known Shaker song was in 1959 by Sister Lillian Phelps. The song is titled:"My Shaker Home." This song received its first public performance fifty years later, when performed by Roger Lee Hall at Canterbury Shaker Village in 2009, and his arrangement of this song is available on the CD, "Celestial Praises" - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals.

 

Shaker Hymns

The first hymns were written about 1805 and the first printed hymnal, Millennial Praises, was published in 1812-13, but with texts only and no music.

One of the best known early hymns was "The Humble Heart" (text: Eunice Wyeth/ tune: Thomas Hammond Jr.). This beautiful hymn is included on these CDs:

"Celestial Praises" (arrangedment by Conrad Held)
"Gentle Words" (arrangement by Roger Lee Hall)

Shaker hymns originally had melody only and often have this form A + BB. During the 1830s, some of their hymns were harmonized in three voice parts (soprano-tenor-bass). An example of an early harmonized hymn is "Ode to Contentment," recorded on the CD, Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler.

After the 1870s, most of their hymns were in four parts (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) and many of them were printed in their published hymnals.

There are thousands of hymns in Shaker manuscript volumes and thousands more in printed Shaker hymnals. A Checlist of Printed Shaker Hymnals is included as a file on the DVD -- The Humble Heart

 

 

Shaker Anthems

Around 1815, anthems began to be written, similar in style to early New England anthems by William Billings, except Shaker anthems had melody only.

By the 1840s, Shaker anthems began to be harmonized in three or four voice parts as well as melody only. After 1870, most of their anthems were in four voice parts (soprano-alto-tenor-bass).

An example of an early Shaker anthem with melody only and recorded on a CD:
"Mount Zion" (1815) by Elder Issachar Bates

A later anthem in four parts (SATB) is available on a DVD:
"Millennial Praise" (1883) by Elder James Russell

 

 

 

Shaker Music On Film

A story treatment is available for consideration by filmmakers or producers interested in a making a film about the most prominent early Shaker church leaders, such as Mother Ann Lee and Father James Whittaker, who were also singers and songwriters. The story of their early years in England and their triumph over persecution and prejudice, and their early missionary travels through New England would make a highly compelling dramatic film or a documentary.

If you would like to discuss this story treatment or use Shaker music in a feature film or documentary, write to:

Shaker music for a film

 

 


Music collections
on DVDs

 

 

Read more about it

Click here

 

 

 

 

Read more about it

Click here

 


"Simple Gifts" - Great American Folk Song

 

 

 

A Shaker Music Miscellany
PineTree Press, 2014

Multi-media DVD-ROM with sheet music and over 200 music examples

 

 

 

Music collection
on CD-ROM


 

"May We Ever Be United"
Music of the North Union, Ohio Shakers
Compiled and Edited by Roger Lee Hall
(PineTree Press, 2012)

This music collection, compiled and edited by Shaker music scholar, Roger Lee Hall, includes a representative sampling of 15 tunes from the Shaker community at North Union. The material was compiled from many years of research and includes source identifications and the most complete information about composers and music from this northern Ohio Shaker community (today known as Shaker Heights).

Read more at: Shaker Music Books and Articles

Shaker Music CDs

 

 


 

 

Celestial Praises: A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals
Arrangements by Roger Lee Hall and Conrad Held
The Canterbury Singers
Kathryn Southworth, Director

 

 

 

You can order a download of the muisc by
Roger Lee Hall from this CD at
CD Baby

 

 

Gentle Words: A Shaker Music Sampler

 

 

Shaker Music Collections with CDs

Joy of Angels:
Shaker Spirituals for Christmas and the New Year


 

Love is Little:
A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals

 

Read about these two essential music collections
with Shaker spirituals
from all the major Shaker communities and
with accompanying CDs at


Shaker Music CDs

 

 

 

 

For a list of Shaker music books and articles ,

Click here

 

 

 

 

Music Commissions

Would you like to commission one or more Shaker spirituals for a concert,
church service or a special event like an anniversary?

Composer Roger Lee Hall has arranged many Shaker tunes over the past few decades.

He is available to edit or arrange Shaker music for solo voice or
for a chorus with or without accompaniment.

Examples of his Shaker arrangements are found here

 


 

 

 

 

To inquire about Shaker music for a special event or concert,
write to:

Shaker Music Commission

 

 

 

Lectures and Workshops

 

Are you interested in scheduling an entertaining Shaker music program
for your school, college, church, museum or other organization?

For more information about Roger Lee Hall's programs,
click on this link:

Music Lectures and Workshops

 

 

Related AMP Links

 

CD and DVD Releases

Issachar Bates and "Come Life, Shaker Life"

Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"

Shaker Music Archive

Shaker Music History

Shaker Music in Our Time

Shaker Music Books and Articles

Shaker Music Scholar

Reviews of Books and CDs

 

 

 

If you have any questions or comments,
write to:

Shaker Music


Help support the mission of

American Music Preservation.com

Purchase books, CDs or DVDs at the

AMP Store

 


Return to top of the page

 

   

 

     
   
   
   
Contact
 

© 2006-2016 PineTree Productions. All Rights Reserved.

.