Week 16: Friday, July 6, 2018
“Simple Gifts” – traditional Shaker / Joseph Brackett, arr. Amy Dalton
SSAA, a cappella
A quintessential part of America’s musical heritage, “Simple Gifts” is a timeless hymn from the Shaker tradition, written by church elder Joseph Brackett. It was made known to a wider audience by Aaron Copland, who famously used the hymn as inspiration for a section of his ballet, Appalachian Spring. Since then, the song has become a part of the American folk tradition. This SSAA arrangement by Amy Dalton is a joyful adaptation for your women’s or treble ensemble.
Dalton’s arrangement sets the text and melodic material twice – first in A Major, then in D Major modulating to B Major. If you are looking for a chance to connect solfege and music literacy to your ensemble’s repertoire, this is a great opportunity. Since the same familiar melodic motives appear in three different keys throughout the piece, it’s the perfect time to work on movable-do and changing tonics. The first time my students worked on the piece, we learned only the initial four measures – just on solfege. Then they tonicized a new key and sang the same material again, which allowed them to practice adjusting their ears and getting quickly settled in a new tonic. This turned out to be an excellent learning opportunity for my students, putting their literacy skills to use in a hands-on way and working on intonation at the same time.
Once you get past the first four measures, the rest of song is “solfege-able” as well, with only a brief fi happening out of context. If your ensemble is ready to work on modulating through solfege, Dalton affords two perfect examples. The tune begins with so so do, which sets up any transitions very easily. In this case, do of A Major becomes so of D Major, and then mi of D Major becomes so of B Major. My students were skeptical at first that they could solidify the key changes and transitions without help from the piano, but they were over the moon to realize they could do it all by themselves.
For the first presentation of the text, in A Major, the voices primarily move homophonically, with a few brief exceptions. Harmony varies from 1- to 4-part, with only one measure of divisi in the S2. The second presentation of the text begins in D Major, where all altos have the sweeping melody line in unison, with S1/S2 sustaining the harmony above in lovely 3-part suspensions. These chords were a little tricky for my students to really settle into, but they became second nature with repetition. If you have a small ensemble, this may require some re-assigning of altos to the soprano lines. This ensures all the soprano divisi are covered and balanced, especially in the final measure as it modulates to B Major. The final section begins in four independent parts, breaking the melody down into short bits, overlapping and dovetailing from one voice part to another. You can really work here on balance, deciding what material is principal and what is background. Dalton’s setting then closes with a light airy touch, back in homophony as it started.
Rhythmically, the song presents minimal challenges, as the rhythms are limited to whole, quarter, half, and eighth notes. There are a few syncopations, but not many. The primary rhythmic concern is to keep the cut-time feel throughout the piece, with the half-note having the main pulse. Avoid treating this setting as if it is in 4/4. Numerous other arrangements exist of this song in 4/4 time, but Dalton’s choice of 2/2 lends a natural lilt and buoyant charm, which connects directly to the dance-like nature of the original hymn.
A primary obstacle to perfecting this song is the tone and style needed. Ranges for S1/S2 are almost entirely within the staff, but the line sits often between C#5 and E/F#5. For many singers, both beginning and experienced, this falls in the awkward passaggio between the upper mixed voice and the head voice. As the phrases often span the octave within just two measures, navigating the transition is key. Keeping the weight out of the lower parts of the phrases, and focusing on a lighter, floating sound, will help smooth the transition through the higher parts of the phrase.
Whether you gravitate towards this piece because of its numerous opportunities for direct application of music literacy skills or because it is a unique arrangement of an American classic (or both!), I am certain your singers and audience alike will find beauty in Dalton’s joyful setting.
|Source:||traditional Shaker hymn, by Joseph Brackett|
|Arranger:||arr. Amy Dalton|
|Date of Arrangement:||2000|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Folk song, Americana|
|Voicing Details:||SSAA, with some divisi|
|Tempo:||Half note=60, “Cheerfully, with buoyance”|
|Dedication:||For the Brigham Young University Women’s Chorus|
|Publisher:||Santa Barbara Music Publishing SBMP 302|
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:|
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.