Sunday, 8 April 2012

Simple Gifts

It might surprise readers of this blog and my followers on Twitter, but one of my favourite pieces of music, amongst many, is Aaron Copeland's arrangement of 'Simple Gifts', 'Variations on a Shaker Melody' from his score for Martha Graham's ballet, 'Appalachian Spring'.

As an aside: it's amusing that the title to the ballet was decided on after he wrote the score. It was taken from a poem by Hart Crane yet many people say how well it evokes the spirit of Spring in the Appalachian Mountains. This is even more amusing when you realise that the term 'Appalachian Spring' in Crane's poem referred to a water source, not the season.

Ah well! Such is the nature of human perception.

Anyway, what I was intending to talk about is the beautiful simplicity in Shaker artefacts and how they came about. To me, 'Simple Gifts' somehow captures this both in its words and in the beautiful simplicity of the tune. The words and music were written by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797-1882).

The basic philosophy is that a thing made with love is a thing of beauty and needs no adornment. The beauty lies in the application of skill and the fitness of form. The lily needs no gilding. Of course, the belief that skill is a gift from God is central to this philosophy but that's not what I'm talking about here.

What I'm talking about is the idea of simplicity itself and how this came into Christianity. The truth may surprise many Christians. It came from Islam.

The Old Testament forbids the making of graven images in the second of the so-called 'Ten Commandments'. This expressly forbids the making of "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:1-17). This is normally completely ignore by even the most fundamentalist of Christians unless it suits them to condemn some image or other. However, the same proscription is found in Islam, where it is taken very seriously.

Islamic cultures tend to be free of figurative art, using only abstract designs and only occasionally plant-based designs and then in a highly stylised form. Wonderful buildings like the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) in Istanbul and the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain are decorated entirely in abstract designs or Koranic verses.

Contrast this to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the former Byzantine Orthodox Christian Church of Saint Sophia which stands opposite the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and was decorated in images and icons of saints which were plastered over when it became a Mosque but have since been uncovered and restored as a museum.

Still today Orthodox Churches of both Greek and Russian traditions are richly adorned with icons and statues as are to a lesser extent Catholic Churches. However, there was a period when the Catholic Church became Iconoclastic and some see this as the fundamental difference between Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Iconoclasm - the act of breaking or destroying icons - was influenced by Islam when it became the dominant force throughout the Middle East including former Christian strongholds like Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria and then Constantinople.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia admits, in an article on iconoclasm on the question of Islamic influence, "It is true that, in a sense, the Khalifa at Damascus began the whole disturbance, and that the Iconoclast emperors were warmly applauded and encouraged in their campaign by their rivals at Damascus." So, influenced by Islam, the Catholic Church briefly became Iconoclastic and a movement against icons entered Western Christianity.

Later, following the Protestant Reformation, with its fundamentalist offshoots like Calvinism, this move against graven images in churches was taken to extremes, emphasising as it does a fundamental difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, so that in England and Calvinist Scotland, especially following the Parliamentarian victory in the civil war, led by the Protestant Puritan Oliver Cromwell, almost all churches were stripped bare of any adornment with even crucifixes, stone crosses and stained-glass windows being destroyed in an iconoclastic fervour.

This resulted in the stark simplicity now found in most English country churches with bare stone or plastered and white-washed walls and bare or brown wood. The same can be found in Methodist and Baptist chapels. Ornamentation is normally now only found in minster churches and cathedrals and nothing on the scale of even the smaller Catholic and Orthodox churches where, to someone like me, brought up in the austere Protestant tradition, the churches appear vulgar and almost obscenely ostentatious. To a secular humanist though, this reaction has nothing to do with blasphemy and blind obedience to the capricious whim of gods, but to the thought of the good that could have been done had the money spent on this ornamentation been spent where it could have done something useful.

And of course, this austerity and stark yet beautiful simplicity reached its most developed and purest form in the Shaker tradition of simplicity of form, in furniture and buildings and in tunes like Simple Gifts, an example of evolution of culture through cross-fertilisation.

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  1. Lovely music. Thank you. What a shame it has been spoiled by association with that particularly childish and irritating hymn 'Lord of the Dance'.

  2. I am not a believer, but I spent the past seven years working at a Quaker school and had a lot of admiration for the Quaker Testimonies they claimed to espouse. While the motivations are dubious (the light of God in everyone), the values (e.g., simplicity) were far more admirable than many other denominations I've encountered. Like most believers, they fell far short of their professed values in terms of their behavior and they way they treated other people, but that's par for the course.


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