Be Glad Then, America! Robert Russell BENNETT (1894-1981) The Fun and Faith of William Billings, American [29:58] William BILLINGS (1748-1800) Be glad then, America – anthem [5:11] When Jesus wept (1770) [1:47]
Chester (1778) [1:47] William SCHUMAN (1910-1992) New England Triptych (1956)
University of Maryland Chorus National Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. 23-26 & 30 April 1975, Constitution Hall, Washington, DC
English texts included DECCA ELOQUENCE 482 2884 [53:46]
On the jewel case this is announced as “First release on Decca CD”, which struck me as s slightly unusual wording until I discovered that these recordings have already been issued on CD by the Doráti Society. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf reviewed that release at the end of 2015. The recordings were originally issued on LP only in the USA as a London release (OS 26442). From Jonathan’s review I see that the Doráti Society release was a transfer from that LP but I imagine that original Decca source material has been used for this present release.
I first encountered the music of William Billings, hitherto unknown to me, back in the early 1990s when I made a speculative purchase of a Harmonia Mundi CD “A Land of Pure Delight” by His Majestie’s Clerkes and Paul Hillier. I was strongly impressed by the music of this self-taught Boston musician who made his living as a tanner but found the time and energy to compose some 340 pieces of choral music. What I heard on that disc – and have heard in other contexts subsequently – was robust, sincere music that was intended to make an immediate connection with those who sang it – and with those who heard it. Billings expressed a strong, convinced religious faith in music that had rough edges but still displayed assurance and no little accomplishment. Billings didn’t plough a lonely furrow in eighteenth century New England; there were other composers, including the memorably named Supply Belcher (1751-1836). However, Billings was foremost among them and has claims to be regarded as the father figure of American composers.
Thus it was a happy idea for the National Symphony Orchestra to commission a Billings-inspired work from Robert Russell Bennett to mark the American Bicentennial in 1976. The result was The Fun and Faith of William Billings, American. It’s a work for chorus and orchestra based on some of Billings’ choral pieces. The booklet reprints a note by Bennett in which he comments that “no attempt is made to catalogue [Billings’] best songs. Songs, anthems and parts thereof are sent for as needed…” The work, which plays continuously, includes two purely orchestral sections, one of them an Introduction. The Billings pieces include the celebratory O Praise God, fervently done here and When Jesus wept, also known as ‘Emmaus’.
Bennett ends by setting, as one continuous whole, firstly Billings’ anthem Hear, hear O Heavens, published in his collection The Continental Harmony (1794) and then the anthem Independence, published in The Singing-Master's Assistant (1778). The latter begins with the words “The States! The States, O Lord with songs of praise shall in thy strength rejoice”. Later the text includes the words “And all the Continent shall sing Down with the earthly King! No king but God!” So, that was King George III firmly put in his place. No wonder that, as Bennett said, he “pounced” on Independence for his finale and he gives it the full choral/orchestral treatment.
On one level The Fun and Faith of William Billings, American is a pičce d’occasion and very much of its time. William Billings’ music is decked in a colourful orchestral dress of which, as Bennett admits, he would have disapproved. In that sense it’s far removed from the music’s humble origins. However, Bennett did his work with the skill that one would expect from him and in so doing he succeeded in forging a musical bridge between the America of the Founding Fathers and the USA of the Bicentennial. His piece seems to me to hark back to a time – and its only forty years ago – when there was a different, dare I say more optimistic spirit in the USA than nowadays seems to be the case. Bennett’s piece strikes a very positive tone that is very different from the divisions that so sadly now appear to be abroad in the USA.
The rest of the programme was intelligently planned. Doráti conducts the University of Maryland Chorus in three unaccompanied Billings originals. They’re the same three pieces that William Schuman used as the basis for his New England Triptych and the ordering is the same. The choir is a large one and they sing with commitment. They do Be glad then, America well. However, in When Jesus wept the vibrato that the female voices deploy makes the pitching a bit unsteady and this is also true of the robust ‘Chester’.
William Schuman used the same three pieces as the basis for his fine orchestral work, New England Triptych. In comments quoted in the booklet he says that his pieces “do not constitute a ‘fantasy’ on themes of Billings nor ‘variation’ on his themes but, rather a fusion of styles and musical language.” What I think he achieves here is to re-imagine with twentieth-century ears the music of his eighteenth-century predecessor. The result is an inventive and expertly scored piece. I find the middle movement, When Jesus wept particularly impressive. Here a round for the woodwind encases some very eloquent quiet writing for the strings. As befits a melody that was taken up by soldiers as a marching song, the treatment of ‘Chester’ brings the work to an ebullient conclusion. Doráti and his orchestra make a good job of it.
This, then, is an interesting programme through which the American Bicentennial was linked to some of the music of the time of the Founding Fathers. Decca’s analogue recording has come up very well and there’s decent documentation.