Featured Content: Frank Ticheli’s Simple Gifts

Featured Content: Frank Ticheli’s Simple Gifts

This month’s featured title is Frank Ticheli’s Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs, based on four traditional Shaker pieces. This beautiful, mature work is suitable for middle school through college bands, as well as community bands. Best of all, this grade 3 piece is available today in SmartMusic.

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Background from Frank Ticheli:

The Creation of Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs

My work is built from four Shaker melodiesa sensuous nature song, a lively dance tune, a tender lullaby, and most famously, “Simple Gift,” 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.

Performance Notes

I – In Yonder Valley

Strive to keep the music light, but alive and flowing. Bring out the bird-call motive which occurs throughout the movement (e.g. flute 1, measure 1, the accented eighth-note to half note). The triangle and glockenspiel parts add a light, crystalline quality to the texture. Their presence, combined with the generally light textures and avoidance of the lower register, reinforces the image of a bright spring morning.

II – Dance

The notes marked staccato may be played shorter than normal, and very lightly. This will give greater contrast tot he accented notes, which are notated almost exclusively on the second half-note of the bar, giving the dance a somewhat offbeat feeling. At measure 49, the second and third trumpets, accompanied by the low brasses and woodwinds, state the dance melody at quarter speed against the first trumpets and upper woodwinds, who state the tune at normal speed. Make sure the second and third trumpets bring their part out.

III – Here Take This Lovely Flower

Begin the movement with a full, connected, rich sound, giving way to a sweeter, gentler sound at measure 9. In the canon of measures 17 to 24, the flutes and oboe should be in equal balance with the imitating clarinets.

IV – Simple Gifts

From measures 5 to 40, and again from measures 61 to 102, strive to maintain an optimistic, percussive, dance-like quality, and keep the notes light, but always energized. The tempo should not lag. Notes marked with accents and fp markings should ring like bright bells. In the chorale statement (measures 45-60) strive for richness and warmth. Beginning in measure 61, the energy builds, culminating in the climax at measure 99. The energy recedes in a final, nostalgic glimmer. The closing ritardando could be interpreted as a “molto ritardando,” and if so, the conductor may choose to shift to a four-beat pattern somewhere during the final five bars.

Is Simple Gifts one of your favorite Ticheli pieces? Have a story about performing it you’d be willing to share? Please let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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