While, like the old song says, I don’t get around much any more, I was drawn out of my lair last night by a chance to see Copland’s Appalachian Spring, my favourite piece of music, performed live by chamber ensemble at Roy Thomson Hall. The performance was fine, but the inevitable respiratory distress of audience members planted a couple of big hairy flies in the ointment; virtually every five seconds of the performance was punctuated by somebody in the audience coughing loudly, climaxing with a massive barking sound during the exquisitely delicate denouement that rang out like a rifle shot. Even at that, it was better than the last time I saw Copland’s masterpiece performed, that time by full orchestra, when a very ill fellow one row down and about five seats over spent the entire 26 minutes barking like a harbour seal through what must have been the tertiary stage of terminal tuberculosis.
No matter. You can mar this order of beauty, but it’s almost impossible to kill it.
The deeply moving climax of Appalachian Spring is a set of variations on Simple Gifts, a hymn written in the 19th century by Joseph Brackett to be a dance song for the “Shakers”, the religious sect otherwise known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They got their name from the ecstatic gyrations that tended to overtake them during religious services. They were odd ducks, the Shakers; once you joined, sex was prohibited and procreation forbidden, a philosophy that tends rather to thin out the ranks over time. There’s only one Shaker community still in existence, in Maine.
Fun fact: they had an unusual aptitude for carpentry and particularly furniture, and their designs for chairs, desks and so on were astonishingly elegant and modern in appearance. It really is wonderful stuff – check it out:
They also, apparently, knew a terrific piece of music when they heard one. To my ears, Simple Gifts is the world’s most beautiful hymn, bar none. It’s been recycled at various times, and the listener might be familiar with a reworded version called Lord of the Dance. It’s the perfect, quintessentially American melody for a work originally titled Ballet for Martha, in honour of Martha Graham, who commissioned it for a dance piece built around themes of pioneer life. Copland knew nothing of the final choreography when he wrote Appalachian Spring, and didn’t even supply the title – as composed, it drew no inspiration whatever from grand, romantic visions of the New World’s mountains and valleys, or even the Spring season, yet somehow, there’s no way to think of anything else when you hear it. This is the music of a young land settled, amid many challenges, tribulations, and almost infinite hope, by a young people seeking their freedom and independence in beautiful Appalachia. It isn’t, not really; but it is.
Attached up top is a lovely rendition of Simple Gifts by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma, who perform the classic tune with a purity and austerity that one suspects would have seemed wholly appropriate to the Shakers themselves. You can hear Copland’s magisterial treatment here, excerpted from the larger work:
And here’s a lovely rendition of the entire piece, performed in its thirteen piece chamber orchestral arrangement:
I’ve never been much for religion, and the Shakers were kind of kooky, but merciful Jesus, Simple Gifts makes me want to start a faith of my own, one worthy of its grace and ethereal beauty. I don’t suppose I’d draw much of crowd though, not when I’d likely preach on the impossibility of knowing the mind of God, supposing there is one, and that maybe we shouldn’t carry on as if we actually understand what any of this means. That’s just not what’s selling these days, you know? Maybe if it’s put this way: that by living through all life’s turns, maybe by turning, and turning, we’ll eventually come ’round right, even if we never quite grasp what’s really going on.