Today, we meet America's first significant
composer. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Anyone who's done much
choral singing has sung William Billings's music.
Ask what music came out of Colonial America: we get
Billings and little more. Few sophisticated
musicians think much of him -- I love his stuff.
Historians have made little effort to know
Billings. The New Grove Dictionary of Music
and Musicians runs to almost 20,000 pages
and it gives Billings only a page and a half.
Billings was born in Boston in 1747. He was poor
and uneducated -- he supported himself much of the
time as a tanner. But he also took up music when he
was young and was teaching choral singing by the
age of 22.
Biographers call him a gargoyle. He was blind in
one eye with a short leg and a withered arm. But
that's only the beginning. He practiced what a
contemporary called "an uncommon negligence of
person," and he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco
-- constantly inhaling handfuls of snuff. That may
explain why he only lived to the age of 54. He had
a stentorian, tobacco-damaged bass voice and he
seemed uninterested in any easy beauty of sound.
At 24, Billings published his first book of choral
pieces. He called it The New-England
Psalm-Singer, and Paul Revere engraved the
frontispiece for it. He published five more volumes
and several pieces of sheet music.
The New-England Psalm-Singer was the
first book of American music. It began a tradition
of musical grass-roots choral singing in America
and Billings knew what he'd done. He delayed
publication over a year -- until he could print it
on paper made in the Colonies. No English imports
for Billings. The book included his song
Chester, which rivaled Yankee
Doodle as an anthem of revolution:
Let tyrants Shake their Iron rod
And slav'ry Clank her galling Chains
we fear them not we trust in god
New englands god for ever reigns.
Ben Franklin had said art would flow to the west --
to the new American Athens. What he got was
Billings's grand idiosyncratic music -- no cultural
continuity with anything. Billings's music emerged
in the classical, rationalist age, with no trace of
classical elegance. It's an artistic declaration of
To know Billings, one should do more than just hear
him; one should sing him -- four-square,
almost-medieval harmonies, elaborate fugues,
experiments with dissonance that foreshadow Charles
Ives. He plays musical jokes, praises God, and
dances into the erotic wonder of the Song of
Solomon. Then he turns around and leaves us with
one of the
most exquisite short canons we've ever heard,
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound ...
The essential genius of America, and of Billings,
was recognizing that full independence of Europe
would eventually be gained only after we'd formed
our own cultural roots.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds