The Shakers were a remarkably musical people, filling handwritten hymnals with thousands of songs expressing their religious fervor and adoration. Wisdom’s Voice is the first recording composed entirely of Shaker songs written here and is the first time that many of these songs have been heard since the 19th century.
Any Shaker was welcome to write music for worship, and there are a number of composers who show up over and over again and contributed a remarkable amount to Pleasant Hill’s creative output. I have come to know their musical styles fairly well, so my own favorite composers appear on Wisdom’s Voice, with Hortency Hooser, Samuel Hooser and Lucinda Shain making frequent appearances. Perhaps my favorite Pleasant Hill composer is Polly McLain Rupe, whose tender and soulful songs appear four times on the recording. Polly was born in 1826 and arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1835 at the age of 8. She lived here until her death in 1875, serving as a teacher and an eldress. Her prolific composition was a gift to the Shakers, and today, it is a gift for us as well.
The Shakers invented their own system of musical notation for writing music. It’s a letteral notation, where the letters A through G represent the notes of the scale. Countless Shaker songs still exist only in this handwritten notation, and it is a long and meticulous process to transcribe this music into classical notation and bring it into the modern day so that it can be sung and heard by all. I learned to read Shaker notation from the Shakers’ own teaching tools and transcribed most of the songs on this recording from the original manuscripts held in the archives here.
When selecting songs, I sat down with photocopies of three handwritten Pleasant Hill hymnals (the originals are far too fragile for frequent handling!) and simply turned through the pages. If a title or text struck me, I explored the melody on the piano and took note of the ones that stayed with me. There are countless beautiful and worthwhile Shaker songs still waiting to be sung, but it was a joy to record these songs that I love the most.
We recorded in the Meeting House, built in 1820 as the Shakers’ worship space. It is a beautiful building with incredible acoustics, which we strove to capture for the listener. With one solo voice filling the space, it is a deeply intimate recording.
It is my hope that this recording will foster a deeper connection to Pleasant Hill and the people who called this place home. Their music connects us across time and reminds us that the artistic expression of human passion is timeless. It has been a joy to create Wisdom’s Voice, and it is my fond hope that it will bring joy to many others as well.
Carys Kunze, Program Specialist for Music and Art
Wisdom’s Voice: Shaker Songs Recorded in the 1820 Meeting House is a recording composed of Pleasant Hill Shaker songs. It features the voice of program specialist for music and art Carys Kunze, who performs regularly at the Village. Wisdom’s Voice can be purchased in The Shops and online.