New England’s God forever reigns

September 26, 2008, 12:26 am

America’s first composer died on this day in 1800. William Billings was born in 1746 in Boston, and lived there all his life. He was described as “somewhat deformed in person, blind in one eye, one leg shorter than the other, one arm somewhat withered.” He was a tanner by trade, and self-taught in music. In 1770, he published The New England Psalm-Singer, a collection of his own compositions. (Above is the frontispiece, by Paul Revere.) He would go on to publish five more such books; his music was widely reprinted; and he taught singing frequently. Yet this was not a living, and he spent the last decade of his life in penury. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Billings’ music is almost all four-part vocal harmony, the prevailing form of religious music in his day. It’s essentially diatonic, with little modulation or use of secondary dominants. The technique is crude in a distinctive way, at once rougher and more cautious than the European style of the same period. It’s rough mainly in its disregard for contrapuntal rules, such as the prohibition on parallel fifths and octaves. But it’s cautious in its treatment of dissonance — indeed there’s hardly any, except for passing tones off the beat. (Thus he did without one of the principal expressive tools of classical music — there’s never a suspension, or a 6/4 to prepare a cadence.) He was criticized for this by the cognoscenti of Boston, and he responded with bravado, writing a satirical address “To the Goddess of Discord”, and a short composition, “Jargon”, made up entirely of dissonances. (You can hear it sung here.)

Yet within its narrow limits, the music still has real strength. The secret is in its fresh and vigorous rhythm. He knows how to sustain the pulse for line after line — it must have been satisfying to belt out those closely rhyming texts in their hearty meters. His greatest hit, and the one with the greatest resonance for history — even military history — is the patriotic hymn Chester. He printed this in his first book, and again with more verses in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). It became one of the most popular songs of the Revolution, second only, they say, to “Yankee Doodle”. (You can hear it at the same site.) In its stirring words,

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.
When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

If you’re curious, here’s Wikipedia’s score of Chester marked up, with the fifths and unisons in red. (I’ve also highlighted spots where he doubled one of the tones in a tritone.)  For more scores, see the William Billings page at ChoralWiki. And for more information, see McKay and Crawford, William Billings of Boston (Princeton, 1975).

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