BY PETER RUTENBERG
Nearly 400 years ago an intrepid band of explorers set sail from England for the New World only to vanish in the ill-fated village known as Jamestown. The second attempt to “colonize” the eastern shore of North America — by the hardy souls aboard the Mayflower — would prove more successful and durable, if not the least bit easier. When the colonists reached the limit of their tolerance for England’s particular brand of imperialism some 156 years later, they would declare their independence and fight a long and bloody war to insist on it. Music provided the rallying cry in that revolution just as it has in many others: indeed music’s ability to stir the soul and motivate the body make it an invaluable accompaniment to important changes of power and influence, wherever and whenever they occur.
Boston’s historical records don’t say much about music’s role in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but by William Billings’ birth in 1746, the city could boast a population of 15,000, active in trade, agriculture and a variety of enterprises. There were undoubtedly performances of secular music in the Concert Hall, which the impoverished Billings may have listened to from outside the building. Undoubtedly local taverns provided an evening’s entertainment, courtesy of their less inhibited patrons and itinerant musicians. The primary churches were Congregational, Calvinist and Anglican — the first two with strict rules against choirs early on — the latter, usually with a choir and, later, an organ in the English tradition. The reform congregation was expected to sing psalms in four-part harmony and a system of singing schools arose to train singers in reading music and vocal production. Out of this practice came a desire for the advanced singers to “perform” without the masses. Initially they were not allowed to do so during services but might be permitted a hearing before or after. In time these “anthems” became an integral part of the worship and have remained so through the present day. Billings was at the forefront of this liturgical revolution until his death in 1800.
Billings is thought to have begun composing as a teenager in the early 1760s. Although not trained by any official process, there is ample evidence to suggest he was adequately self-taught, given his substantial output of hymns and anthems. His first efforts were crude by the European standards of the day, but it wasn’t long before he developed a more polished and sophisticated style. The method of composition employed by Billings has a strong bearing on the resulting sound: the givens were a metric psalm or hymn text and the standard four-part harmony. First, the melody or “Air” was written for the Tenor. Then the Bass established a harmonic pattern with some counter-melodic interest. After that, the “Treble” or Soprano was written to complement the Tenor and form a suitable duet in the style of a ‘descant’. Last came the “Counter” or Alto, which filled in harmonies but often exhibited limited melodic inclination and a narrow range of notes. It was customary for the tenors and sopranos to divide in half, and both sing each other’s lines, so that the standard texture was really comprised of six instead of four parts. Considering Billings’ own leading bass voice, it was not unusual for the bass line to be doubled an octave below. Even without the contrapuntal extravagance of the old European style or acoustics of large cathedrals, they could still enjoy the rich and sonorous fabric created from octave doublings and nasalized resonance.
Billings is credited with six publications and a number of individual issues: The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770), The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), Music in Miniature (1779), The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement (1781), The Suffolk Harmony (1786), and The Continental Harmony (1794). The Billings selections on this program are all drawn from the 1778, 1781 or 1786 collections
The term shape note singing refers to various systems of notation developed in the United States from 1800 in which the printed note heads were of different shapes (triangle, diamond, etc.), corresponding to an abbreviated form of solfeggio using some of the standard seven syllables do re mi fa sol la ti. Their purpose was to facilitate the learning of hymns and psalms. The Sacred Harp (1844) is perhaps the best known collection published in this format. New Englander Stephen Jenks (1772-1856) continued the tradition of Daniel Read in the generations after Billings, writing and publishing several shape-note hymn books, and later moving to Ohio to make musical instruments. South Carolinian William Walker (1809- 1875) was responsible for compiling Southern Harmony (1835) — his first and most famous book of shape-note tunes — which is notable for its pre- Civil War popularity and for being the first book to include the hymn Amazing Grace set to the tune ‘New Britain’ still used today.
In the mid-20th century composer Steve Reich began a revolution of his own in American music which is known by the generic term ‘minimalism’. While this word is intended to describe a compositional system that relies on ‘minimal’ thematic material varied by cyclic repetition, there is nothing sparse or unextrapolated in its design or execution. Indeed, it is vigorous, powerful and engaging in the sheer level of activity that takes place on its musical soundscape. The Desert Music, written between 1982- 84 to brief texts by William Carlos Williams, is distinguished by triple layers of tempos, wide leaps and stratospheric registers, while the choral writing is somewhat darker and more chordal than his earlier work, Tehillim. The central, slow movement delivers the work’s ‘message’ — an admonition against technological advance — leading to a striking image created by the finale’s opening. Author K. Robert Schwarz describes it thus: “the sustained chords are voiced so as to create an immense six-octave span from double-bass to piccolo. As the bustling counterpoint intertwines within these chords, the visual image that arises is of a solitary human running across a vast desolate plain –– a desert at once intimidating and exhilarating.” This image and Williams’ text will undoubtedly resonate more profoundly in the context of current events. (Note: some of the information about Billings is paraphrased or adapted from The Complete Works of William Billings published by the American Musicological Society; that about the remaining composers is paraphrased from articles in Grove.com.)