"'Tis the gift to be simple"
Aaron Copland Meets The Shakers
In November of 1974, the distinguished composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was in Cleveland, Ohio for a celebration of "Aaron Copland Week."
The week included concerts of his music, including the Suite from "Appalachian Spring," by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Copland and other Copland works conducted by Lorin Maazel. Other concerts were held during that week by various musicians. There was also a showing of the 1939 movie, OF MICE AND MEN, with a film score by Copland, who seemed very pleased by all the events planned in his honor. One of the honors was receiving an honorary key to the City of Cleveland by the mayor.
I attended many of the events and wished I could introduce Copland to the Shakers, if they happened to be in the area.
Well, happily, my wish came true.
Copland meets the Shakers for the first time
At the same time Copland was in Cleveland, there were several Shakers from Sabbathday Lake, Maine visiting in nearby Shaker Heights, Ohio.
After a quick phone call to the hotel where Copland was staying in Cleveland, I was able to arrange for him to meet the Shakers while he was attending a Case Western Reserve University music student gathering.
At that meeting, I asked Copland to sign a copy of his vocal setting for "Simple Gifts." Here he is speaking with us and autographing a copy of his "Simple Gifts" arrangement for Sister Mildred Barker and Sister Frances Carr:
© Photographs by Gail M. Hall, 1974s.
That same day, at a workshop for local teachers, the Shakers sang a few of their favorite songs. Brother Theodore Johnson mentioned their pleasure in meeting Aaron Copland.
One month earlier, there had been a major three day conference at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. I conducted a community chorus in one of the programs and included the first performance of a Shaker hymn, "On the Landing of Mother Ann in America," also my arrangement of another Shaker hymn, "Celestial Praises." That music program ended with everyone singing "Simple Gifts."
November 9, 1974 - when Copland met the Shakers from Sabbathday Lake - will always be special to me, since I was able to introduce the composer I most admired to the Shakers I also greatly admired for the first and only time.
It was truly a meeting of minds who shared a mutual admiration for the beautiful Shaker dance song -- that is what the Shakers originally called it, not a hymn) --
"Simple Gifts" (aka: "Tis the gift to be simple").
-- Roger Hall, 1 November 2014
© Photograph by Gail M. Hall, 1974.
Read the full description of the historic 1974 meeting of Copland
and the Shakers in the book, also with audio interviews with Aaron Copland and Sister Mildred Barker, plus video clips, all on one DVD for computer titled,
Simple Gifts" - Great American Folk Song by Roger Lee Hall (PineTree Press)
Would you like to schedule a talk about the meeting of Aaron Copland and the Shakers and about the origin of this most popular Shaker song,
with recorded music examples and live singing?
For more information, write to Mr. Hall --
Giving proper credit where it is due:
In the book, Chosen Faith, Chosen Land: The Untold Story of America's 21st-Century Shakers by Jeannine Lauber (Down East Books, 2009), there is a two page description of "Simple Gifts" by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. On page 123, there is a small color picture of Aaron Copland meeting Sister Mildred Barker in 1974 [shown above]. There are numerous errors in the caption for the picture.
First, Copland's name is misspelled as "Copeland." Next, The Shakers were NOT invited to attend a birthday party for Copland as the caption indicates. The Shakers were invited by Roger Hall to meet Copland at a music librarian's home. And third, there is no credit given to the photographer, Gail Hall, who took this historic picture in Shaker Heights, Ohio on November 9, 1974.
Recordings of Copland's Arrangements
There are many worthwhile versions of Copland's Appalachian Spring, which includes the variations on "Simple Gifts." Though there is still discussion about which versions of Appalachian Spring are missing some of the original ballet music, it still remains his most popular concert work in whatever version may be heard. Copland also arranged the Shaker song for voice and piano (later orchestrated) in his set of Old American Songs.
Here are some recormmended recordings:
The Music of America: Aaron Copland
a recommended 3 CD set with the variations on"Simple Gifts"
from Appalachian Spring (Michael Tilson Thomas and
San Francisco Symphony), also the
arrangement of "Simple Gifts" sung by William Warfield
in Old American Songs
This is a recommended CD conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:
Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo
This CD has only the Suite from Appalachian Spring but it is one of the most popular recordings,
conducted by Copland's longtime friend, Leonard Bernstein:
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite and other works
These highly recommended CDs are with Copland conducting:
A Copland Celebration Vol. 1 - Appalachian Spring (original chamber version)
and other works including the "Simple Gifts" Variations
A Copland Celebration Vol. 2 - Old American Songs & other works
includes an arrangement of "Simple Gifts" for voice and piano
in Old American Songs with
William Warfield, baritone and Aaron Copland, piano
A Copland Celebration Vol. 3 - Old American Songs & other works
orchestral arrangement of "Simple Gifts"
(the distinguished baritone known for his role in Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and also in the MGM movie musical, SHOWBOAT)
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