William Billings: ‘I am the Rose of Sharon’

This Sunday the choir singing “I am the Rose of Sharon” by William Billings.  The anthem features a wonderfully racy Song of Solomon text set to music by a composer whose musical spirit and originality were unrivalled in his time; so I though that a few words of context might not be amiss.

Listen to the piece here:

William Billings (1746-1800) was America’s leading 18th-century composer.  A tanner by trade, he was completely self-taught in music.  He lived in Boston during the Revolutionary War era and was active in patriot circles that included Samuel Adams and Paul Revere (who engraved some of his music).  Many of his pieces have a nationalistic overtone.

No portrait of Billings is known to exist, but a much-quoted description by a contemporary diarist paints a dubious picture:

“He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person.  Still he spoke and sang and though as a man above the common abilities.”

In his time Billings was acclaimed as a master teacher of choral singing, and he was a leading force in establishing a uniquely American phenomenon: the 18th-century New England singing school.  He published several collections of music for use in these singing schools.  Billings’s works contained music for unaccompanied four-part chorus, but they also included lengthy introductions offering instruction in note reading, music theory, vocal technique, and rules on how to run singing schools.  These volumes were not so much intended to be music collections as they were to be music textbooks with practical examples.

‘I am the Rose of Sharon’ was published in a 1778 collection called The Singing Master’s Assistant.  In addition to 63 palm tunes and 10 anthems, The Singing Master’s Assistant has a considerable amount of instructional material, including: a preface, an advertisement, 15 lessons in music, rules for regulating a singing school, a musical dictionary, a musical creed, a letter to (of all people) the Goddess of Discord.

This matter makes for delightful reading.  A few excerpts, first from the Preface:

“KIND READER, No doubt you (do or ought to) remember, that about ten years ago, I published Book entitled, The New England Psalm Singer, &c. And truly a most masterly and inimitable Performance, I then thought it to be.  Oh! How did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy! With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and putting on the covers, with what extacy, did I yet snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and pressing it to my bosom, with rapturous delight…Welcome, thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author…

“After impartial examination, I have discovered that many of the pieces in that Book were never worth my printing, or your inspection; therefore in order you make you ample amends for my former intrusion, I have selected and corrected some of the tunes which were most approved in that book, and have added several new pieces which I think to be very good ones…”

From Lesson XIII:

“SING that part which gives you the least pain, otherwise you make it a toil, instead of pleasure; for if you attempt to sing a part which is (almost or quite) out of your reach, it is not only very laborious to the performer; but very disagreeable to trhe hearer, by reason of many wry faces and uncouth postures, which rather resemble a person in extreme pain, than one who is supposed to be pleasantly employed.  And it has been observed, that those persons, who sing with the most ease, are in general the most musical…”

From Lesson XIV:

“GOOD singing is not confined to great singing, nor is it entirely dependent on small singing.  I have hear many great voices, that never struck a harsh Note, and many small voices that never struck a pleasant one; therefore if the Tones be Musical, it is not material whether the voices be greater, or less; yet I allow there are but few voices, but what want restraining, or softening upon the high notes, to take of the harshness, which is as disagreeable to a delicate ear as a wire-edged raisor to a tender face…

“IT is also well worth your observation, that the grand contention with us, is, not who shall sing the loudest; but who shall sing the best.”

From “Observe these rules for regulating a Singing-School”:

“The Members should be very punctual in attending at a certain hour, or minute, as the master shall direct, under penalty of a small fine, and if the master should be delinquent, his fine to be double the sum laid upon the scholars—Said fines to be appropriated to the use of the school, in procuring wood, candles, &c…

“All the scholars should submit to the judgment of the master, respecting the part they are to sing; and if he should think fit to remove them from one part to another, they are not to contradict, or cross him in his judgment; but they do well to suppose it is to answer some special purpose…

“No unnecessary conversation, whispering, or laughing, to be practised; for it is not only indecent, but very impolitic; it being needless expense of time, and instead of acquiring to themselves respect, they render themselves ridiculous and contempable in the eyes of all serious people…

“Much more might be said; but the rest I shall leave to the Master’s direction, and your own discretion, heartily wishing you may reap both pleasure and profit, in this your laudable undertaking.”


Two New Blogs from Two Good Friends

If you are looking for something interesting and insightful to read on the Turgid Morass of the Interwebs, allow to recommend two new blogs from some friends of mine.

Arctic Organist

Jonathan Blamire, Grand Strand AGO Charter Member and former Music Director of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, Georgetown, SC

Jonathan and his wife Sarah moved to South Carolina from England about four years ago to take the music job at the Episcopal church in Georgetown.  I got to know him through the chapter of the American Guild of Organists that we formed in 2010.  Since that time, I have enjoyed working with him on AGO events and also getting a little glimpse into his music ministry at Prince George.  He has become a valued collegue and a true friend.

You can imagine what a transition it was in Jon’s life to move from England to South Carolina.  Well, now he has taken a church music post at a cluster of churches in the northern part of Norway, and has started a blog to chronicle the adventure:

“This is really an invitation to come on a voyage of discovery as I (the organist) move from sunny South Carolina (USA) to Lenvik (Norway). I’ve taken the position of Kantor 2 in the Lenvik parish of Den Norske Kirke (the Norwegian state church), and as I discover what this really means, I’ll post updates, hopefully with lots of pictures. This is not something that would ever have crossed my mind, but due to a series of ‘Godincidences’ I’m on the way. It’s not a journey I want to take on my own, so I rely on the Lord as He guides.”

Under the Cassock

Nicole Keller, former Organist and Choirmaster, Christ Church Episcopal, Hudson, Ohio

Nicole  is an Eastman classmate, fabulous organist, and one of my most treasured and beloved colleagues–she was the organist at our wedding.  Nicole is one of those annoyingly talented and intelligent kind of people who can do (and actually has done) just about anything she wants.  Her blog is about the place where music, faith, doubt, and everyday life intersect:

“I am a musician striving to be an artist and a person of faith while living in a world that strives to suck the artist and faith right out of you.”

Make sure you read the post on the Spiders of Bayrueth!

Music from This Past Sunday

Third Sunday of Easter – April 22.  Please click on the links below to hear music from this service; download the service leaftlet here.

Bender: Down Ampney (Hymn 516)

Tallis: If ye love me, keep my commandments

Hymn 413, New songs of celebration render (Rendez a Dieu)

Paraphrase of Psalm 98 by Erik Routley  (1917-1982)

Psalm 98
(Simplified Anglican Chant, Robert Knox Kennedy)

Hymn 516, Come down, O Love divine (Down Ampney)

Trivia:  The tune for this hymn was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906 for The English Hymnal, of which Vaughan Williams was the musical editor.  It is one of several tunes he wrote for that hymnal, including Sine nomine, the tune for “For all the saints.”  The name of this tune, ‘Down Ampney,’ comes from the village in Goucestershire where Vaughan Williams was born.

Titcomb: I will not leave you comfortless

Hymn 182, Christ is alive! let Christians sing (Truro)

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

The Resurrection of Our Lord:
Easter Day –  April 8

Please click on the links below to hear music from this service;
download the service leaflet here

Hymn 207, Jesus Christ is risen today (Easter Hymn)

Hymn of Praise: Glory to God
(setting by William Mathias)

Psalm 118
Anglican Chant, Stanford

Handel: ‘Hallelujah’ from Messiah

Friedell: Draw us in the Spirit’s tether

Vaughan Williams: ‘Rhosymedre’ from Three Welsh Hymn Tunes

Soler, arr. Biggs: The Emperor’s Fanfare

See more pictures from Easter at the Trinity Shutterfly site here

Sounds of Holy Week from St. Thomas

The Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City is renowned for its music, but here are a few non-musical highlights from Holy Week:

From Tenebrae: The Strepitus

Tenebrae is the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows,” and refers to the ancient monastic practice of keeping vigil with song and prayer during the last three nights of Holy Week.  One of the features of this service is the gradual extinguishing of candles, so that the church becomes darker as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross becomes nearer.  Shortly after the final candle extinguished, loud noise called the “strepitus” is made; this noise recalls the earthquake and the rending of the Temple veil at the moment of Jesus’ death.

This “loud noise” can be as simple as dropping a heavy book or slamming a door (or, for that matter, a piano lid).  As often as not it falls to the music person to generate the strepitus; if it is to be done well, it can tap one’s deepest creative reserves.  In my years as a music director my various strepiti have involved bass drums, gongs, clappers, hammers, two-by-fours, cymbals, handbells, and even an autoharp (don’t ask).  So I was especially interested to hear what they do at St. Thomas—I think that you’ll agree that it’s quite dramatic.

Listen to it here.

From Maundy Thursday: The Stripping of the Altar

From the explanation of the liturgy on the church’s website:  “Then, after the altar has been left naked, the Rector emerges, and, by pouring from two cruets, he creates small puddles of water and wine in places on the surface of the altar that represent the wounds of Christ. He then scrubs the altar using a bundle of dried palms from Palm Sunday, a link to the triumphant arrival in Jerusalem that in days became tragedy. When he is finished loudly scrubbing, he tosses the bundle of palms aside, and the choir immediately stops singing, and all the lights are suddenly out, and the church is left in darkness as choristers run through the church, scattering themselves in frightened flight. The bare altar is left alone and abandoned.”

Listen to it here.

You can listen to these services in their entirety as well as all of the sung Holy Week and Easter services by visiting the St. Thomas webcast archive here