Laboring Songs

Movement I, From Symphony No. 3, "Shaker Life"

Dan Welcher

Performing Ensemble: Wind Ensemble
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

I have been interested for several years in certain spiritual practices outside the mainstream of contemporary American religion and have put this interest to work in a number of musical idioms. The musical resources I have employed have included Hawaiian chant, Korean folk song, and real and "imagined" early American hymnody. Most recently, my work "Zion" for wind ensemble juxtaposed two nineteenth century revivalist hymns as a means of depicting the conflicting emotions and missionary zeal of the Mormon pioneers in Utah.

For" Laboring Songs", I have mined the deep spiritual and musical lode of the Shakers, a Protestant sect (originally called the "Shaking Quakers") that emigrated from Great Britain to New England in the mid-eighteenth century. This group, founded by "Mother" Anne Lee and two of her brothers, is now nearly extinct - chiefly because its practice of celibacy has kept its members from reproducing. As the number of converts has waned, the surviving Shakers have diminished in number to such a degree that fewer than a dozen living practitioners of the religion remained when I began to write the piece in 1997.

The Shakers' music is chiefly known through a single mid-nineteenth century song called "Simple Gifts," which was made famous by American composer Aaron Copland. (Ironically, although the message of the song is to gain "true simplicity" and "come down where we ought to be," the melody has been used to sell everything from luxury automobiles to politicians). I determined immediately that "Simple Gifts" would be off-limits as a source. In researching the Shakers' other music, I looked at well over 300 spiritual songs, hymn, wordless melodies, and "laboring songs." The last of these categories refers to the use of vocal music in Shaker worship: the "band" of singers would stand in the middle of the meeting house, while the other worshippers would "labor," executing marches, shuffles, and various other dance-steps as a means of worshipping God. The "shaking" that often overtook them in their zeal was mentioned in the music as well, and references to "shaking" in such songs as "Come Life, Shaker Life" would infer that the physical movement was an outward manifestation of a desire to rid the body of unclean thoughts and desires:

Come life, Shaker life,
Come life eternal;
Shake, shake out of me
All that is carnal.

This song, in fact, is one of five Shaker melodies that I have used in "Laboring Songs". The piece does not tell a story; it is not a "picture" of Shaker life in the nineteenth century. But it does attempt to express a sense of spiritual journeying, moving within its ten minutes from pure solo song to mystic angelic choirs, and finally to communal ecstasy and religious joy.

Available on Rental

Scores & Parts

Laboring Songs - Full Score - Study
Laboring Songs - Full Score - Large

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by the Bands of L.D. Bell High School, The Colony High School and Duncanville High School
Composition Date 1997
Duration 10:00
Orchestration 5(Picc.) 3(E.H.) 5(Eb Cl., B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) Sop.Sax. AltoSax. Ten.Sax. Bar.Sax. - 4 4 4 1 Euph.; Timp. 5Perc. Pno. Cb.
Premiere February 26, 1998