Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Top Billings

As today is Independence Day in the United States, who better to be the subject of a post than that nation's first great musical original, the pioneering William Billings (1746-1800)?

The largely self-taught Billings, a tanner by trade, composed hundreds of unaccompanied, four-part choral works. They were written to be sung by amateurs in parish churches and have something of the freshness of folk music about them. When I first came to the music of Billings a decade or so ago, I assumed (reading his dates) that his choral music would sound rather like Handel or, maybe, Haydn. I was in for a big surprise. It sounds so different to the kind of sacred music being written in Europe at the time; indeed, it sounds timeless. Out go many of the niceties of Baroque and Classical counterpoint and in come 'fuguing songs', modality, the fresh country air of open fifths, and fifths and octaves moving in parallel. Another unusual feature is that the main melody in a Billings piece lies in the tenor part, which he wrote first. The other lines - first the bass, then the soprano and finally the alto - were then composed around it. 

This may sound like music out of its time but it was, in fact, very much of its time - and place. Billings was a friend of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere and wrote one of the most popular revolutionary anthems, Chester ('Let tyrants shake their iron rod'). It was a great favourite with the revolting American colonists during the War of Independence and sounds great fun to sing. 

Chester later got a new lease of life when William Schuman used it as the basis of the third movement of his New England Triptych.

Billings' style can encompass a range of moods. If you fancy a bit of early Christmas good cheer then Billings is your man. His Shepherd's Carol ('Methinks I see an heaven'ly host') may have the traditional triple-time lilt of the old pastoral sicilienne but its energy, robust part-writing and memorable tune mark it out as pure Billings - as does Judea ('A Virgin Unspotted'). If you want to hear a forthright, dramatically-paced telling of David's Lamentation ('David, the King, was grieved and moved'over the death of his son, Absalom, then again Billings is your man. The 'anthem for mariners' Euroclydon ('They that go down to the Sea in Ships') is a similarly fine piece of word-painting. The latter pieces show how flexibly Billings could handle his four-part writing, using contrasting textures to get his hymn's message across. This reaches its height in I am the Rose of Sharon

Sometimes the harmonies of Billings could have come fresh out of the Renaissance, by-passing over one hundred and fifty years of Baroque harmonic innovation. The effects can be captivating, as you can hear with his touching Emmaus ('When Jesus Wept').

Billings is such a fascinating one-off.

Further listening:

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