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.”

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One thought on “William Billings: ‘I am the Rose of Sharon’

  1. Steve Horning says:

    Thanks for this excellent concise introduction to the hearty music of our American original, William Billings. An adult Sunday School course in my church currently surveys great Christian classical choral music, from Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak – and now, Billings. We’re looking at six or seven of his anthems, including “Rose of Sharon,” his rousing Easter anthem and “Euroclydon” (Psalm 107).

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