Come Life, Shaker Life: A Community Effort In Vermont

More than 450 people packed the seats and lined the walls of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Brattleboro, Vermont, on December 8, 2001, to hear the Brattleboro Community Chorus’s premiere of Paul Dedell’s Come Life, Shaker Life, a commission funded by a Choral Arts New England Alfred Nash Patterson Grant for the 2001-2002 season. Then the word spread: not only did the Brattleboro Community Chorus (BCC) have another full house for their repeat performance on December 9, they also had to turn away 100 people. Through the efforts of its director, Susan Klein, Dedell, and the choristers, the BCC succeeded in attracting seven percent of Brattleboro’s population of approximately 12,000 people—an extraordinary achievement that lends the word “community” in the chorus’s name an even deeper meaning.

The idea for the commission surfaced when Klein, rummaging through the stacks at the Marlboro College library in search of Negro spirituals for a BCC concert, discovered The Shaker Spiritual by Daniel Patterson. Klein was intrigued by the Shakers’ unique vision of God as a being that is both male and female and intertwined with nature. Later, when the BCC wanted to commission Paul Dedell, a well-known local composer, Klein proposed the Shaker texts. Dedell quickly became absorbed in the project, spending half a year researching and traveling to Shaker communities. The result was a work larger in scale than either Klein or Dedell first imagined: 21 movements scored for SATB chorus, baritone and soprano soloists, and flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and bassoon, all based on Shaker tunes, tune fragments, and texts.

Come Life, Shaker Life employs a diversity of texts, musical textures, and narration to capture the Shakers’ culture and the historical context in which they lived. Movements scored for full chorus evoke the communal nature of Shaker life, while solo moments tell of individual struggle to live up to Shaker ideals. Two instrumental dances call to mind lively Shaker worship. Several movements scored for men’s voices or women’s voices suggest both the division of responsibilities between the sexes and their complete temporal and spiritual equality in Shaker philosophy. One compelling narration in the piece is excerpted from a Shaker’s account of a nightmare that he interpreted as presaging Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The narration is followed by “Supplication in a Nation’s Calamity,” a fervent song of prayer that “the bands of the captives” – slaves – “be broken”, and that love triumph over war, illustrating the Shaker commitment to peace and belief in the equality of all beings.

In the week before the concerts, Klein and Dedell gave two lectures about the project. Their intent was to get the audience as involved in the Shakers’ world as they themselves had become. Judging from the attendance and enthusiastic reception at the concerts, Klein and Dedell succeeded admirably. Perhaps the project’s themes of community and spirituality and its grassroots nature – the conductor, composer, chorus, and instrumentalists all have strong ties to their local arts scene – had much to do with its ability to rally Brattleboro’s citizenry. Choruses like the BCC are in a unique position to unite their communities in shared cultural experience, and the BCC has taken advantage of this to become one of the region’s artistic leaders, initiating collaborations with organizations such as Brattleboro High School, the Brattleboro School of Dance and the Windham Art Association. The BCC will have an opportunity to bring Come Life, Shaker Life to farther-flung places: four historic Shaker settlements, Canterbury, NH, Hancock, MA, Sabbathday Lake, ME, and Lebanon, NY have invited them to perform the piece. Choral Arts New England is proud to support the Brattleboro Community Chorus and many other choruses that are such vibrant contributors to communities throughout New England.

Effective date: 
Saturday, December 8, 2001