Something cool you might have missed: The birth of American choral writing

1781_PsalmSingersAmusement_byWilliamBillings_Boston

Before America was America it was a bunch of English colonies, and there wasn’t anything uniquely American about it to speak of prior to the revolution. Hell, they called the bulk of it New England, which gets points for honesty if not creativity. It had to have been a pretty exciting time for those who were there. 120 years after their first foray into the New World, the British settlers had successfully established a society on land that was definitely never inhabited prior to the Mayflower, I swear (citation needed). These were heady times filled with people working at trades, going to church, banging out children, and definitely doing all of your own manual labor without any outside help from, say, Africa (citation needed).

It was the famous Patriots (a word which has unfortunately lost all meaning today) that we all learned about in school that first began sowing the seeds of American Nationalism in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence. Ben Franklin, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the rest of the gang all deserve their fair share of the credit (and blame) for the burgeoning republic that ultimately became a reality, but as much credit as belongs to the political heroes of the day belongs to the cultural heroes as well. Men like Thomas Paine, John Singleton Copley, and Ben Franklin again (seriously, Ben Franklin is the shit) slowly began establishing the elements of a unique cultural heritage that would come to full flower in the 20th century.

The primary contributor to American music in this period was William Billings. Billings tanned animal hides by trade, something I assume they’ll be doing again in Portland and Brooklyn within the next 20 years. He was never trained in music, or shit else for that matter. He obviously had an aptitude for it, though, because he was teaching choir by the age of 22, no less impressive a feat than the child prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn who had rigorous training from a terrifyingly young age. I don’t give a fuck how provincial your neck of the woods may be, if you can be teaching others a self-taught skill by that age, you’re crushing it.

Apparently dude looked like absolute hell, and probably would have shopped at Walmart were he of a later generation. He was blind in one eye, had one leg shorter than the other, and one of his arms was fucked up, and he had a crippling addiction to tobacco (which is why he went by “Lucky” according to this article I just wrote in my head). A contemporary of his reportedly described him as having “an uncommon negligence of person,” which I have every intention of stealing and using on somebody.

Whatever his physical shortcomings, his music suffers no such thing. He wrote a whole heap of hymns and anthems and fuging tunes and canons and shit, published in six volumes over the course of his life. The first of these volumes, “The New England Psalm-Singer”, had a frontispiece engraved by Paul Revere and was delayed in being published so that it could be made on purely American paper, which is the most musically patriotic thing I can imagine.

Billings’ most famous song is probably Chester, which became epically popular during the Revolution. For my money, though, the best representation of his gift is found in his second volume, “The Singing Master’s Assistant” of 1778. Based on what amounts to a cheesy love poem from the hand of the wisest man in history, I am the rose of Sharon showcases Billings’ strengths: bold open harmonies juxtaposed against lush harmonies filled out by voice doublings, an overabundance of the Rule of Three, and a flair for word painting that is unsurpassed by anyone ever. Check out this video that has a criminally low number of views for how good it is:

I mean, dig that change when the Bride gives a shout out to her boo. The bounding 6/8 feel, the unisons, and especially the graceful “skipping” that does just that from section to section. That’s a fucking 8-bar clinic on great choral writing and there’s a ton more where that came from. Here’s a delightfully bizarre take on the brilliant Euroclydon using something resembling autotune:

Even with the Wendy Carlos synth sounds, the harmonies sound fascinating. I can’t stop listening to this. It’s like the Chipmunks fucked the Swedish chef from the Muppets during a reading of Psalms!

American classical music became a truly unique phenomenon by the 1940’s with the likes of Copland, Barber, Schuman, Piston, Sessions, Ruggles, Ives, and many other truly fine composers establishing a sound world that had never been heard before. And yet the roots for that sound lie in Billings in ways that are easy to distinguish, not the least of which is the aforementioned open harmonies. He is every bit the forefather of something AMERICAN! that Franklin, Adams, and the like are. Everybody grab a dozen of your closest singing friends, reread Psalms, and embrace the one-eyed fuck from Boston who laid the foundation for what made this country’s music what it is.

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One thought on “Something cool you might have missed: The birth of American choral writing

  1. Loved this post! A second helping would be welcomed. I have been a huge fan of early American music since I was in high school. I could listen to it all day, and wish I had a dozen friends. Take that however you want.
    Also, I learn a bum-load from every post you write, so keep it up!

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