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Friday, September 29, 2006

"Every composer should be his own Carver"
-- William Billings, American composer, 1746 - 1800.

He wrote a hymn during the Revolutionary War that was an early contender to become America's national anthem. It's called "Chester,"after the name of a town called Chester, though the link between the song and the title is obscure. It is a stately, nice, but somewhat stodgy tune. I'd like to hear more by him.
Tune names in colonial times were usually named after cities and towns, with apparently no connection between them. (I conduct a church choir in Sudbury, Mass., so we sing Billings' "Sudbury" a lot, but the name itself is arbitrary.) Sometimes distant places factor in, too: Billings has an "Africa," and one of the more famous tunes is Timothy Swan's "China."

Billings does have one great local piece, though; it's called "Lamentation Over Boston." He takes the words to Super flumina Babylon and changes them so all the places are Massachusetts specific—"On the shores of Watertown, by the waters of the Charles, we sat down and wept," etc. It's a riot.
Thanks for the explanation and tips! I will look in the library for more Billings. I had heard "Chester," in a band arrangement, and a few other hymns. What got me thinking about Billings again again was hearing William Schuman's elaboration-fantasy on "Chester," which I liked a lot.
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