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‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
–Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts (1848)
Listen to a performance of Simple Gifts here in the orchestral setting found in Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs (1950), the performance is by Marilyn Horne. Copland also used the song as the basis for the movement “Calm and Flowing” in Appalachian Springs (1945).
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Recently I have been listening to the Sony Classics “Copland Collection” which surveys Copland’s major orchestral works in chronological order–roughly nine hours of recordings, many of them conducted by Copland himself. The recordings are marvelous, and listening to them beginning to end gives a different understanding of Copland and his genius as a composer. His early work is experimental, exciting, but also frequently dark and dissonant. It undergoes a remarkable transformation in the years of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies. Copland’s best works come from this period. They are powerful, at times fiercely patriotic expressions of American sentiment, filled with optimism, commitment and passion. This man was, I believe, the greatest composer America produced in the last century, and his work spoke to the country in a manner that few composers in the classical tradition have ever managed.
Copland, a native of Brooklyn, sees the beauty in simplicity, in the folk tradition, and in the unassuming and quiet lives of the nation’s heartland. He also portrays the vigor and energy of the great industrial cities, and he had a special affection for the rhythmic music of Latin America. (In the chronology, El Salón México of 1933 seems the break-through piece in which a vibrant celebration of life supplants darkness and doubt). Copland holds up this vibrant, and at times chaotic mosaic of cultures and traditions as a virtue in the face of the totalitarian onslaught. It is his answer to the fascist mythmaking of the thirties which pushed idea of racial supremacy, national identity and a cultural and social monolith.
In all of this, a central position is held by the quiet simplicity of the Shaker tradition. Few of Copland’s works manage this ideal of quiet simplicity quite as well as Simple Gifts, and the Marilyn Horne performance is one of the best.
America launches the second phase of the presidential campaign season this week, as the Democrats gather in Denver. America is being presented with two different visions of its essence and how it can evolve in the coming decades. The low-road campaigners will instinctively, but falsely, reject the legitimacy of the opposing vision. It is a good time to take stock of common roots and ideals before the clash and pettiness of the final stretch of campaigning takes hold. Simple Gifts reminds us of the way: it beckons to a dance that stands as a symbol for life and social interaction; it urges us to value the gifts we have, to cherish them and use them wisely, but with a heart filled with love and generosity. It is an American ideal which is too quickly forgotten in the pettiness and venality of election campaigns.
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm
An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath
No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am
How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?
No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am
Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Rank of Detroit among major U.S. cities whose residents give the largest portion of their income to charity:
A South Dakota researcher concluded that only scant blood spatter results when chain saws are used to dismember pigs.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature