The best thing about life these days is the CD of early American hymns in my car. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before – I have to rhapsodize about this music every few months on here.) My latest CD is of songs entirely by William Billings, a prolific self-taught composer who started life as a tanner, became the most widely-published sacred music composer in New England, and died bankrupt (which must seal his legacy as a great man, considering all the company he has).
My favorite track on this CD (listen to samples here) is “I Am the Rose of Sharon.” The insert falsely describes this as a secular love song, which shows that the insert author doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s a glorious arrangement of lines from the Song of Solomon, open to both secular and sacred interpretation. Given the deep spirituality evident in Billings’ work, and the time period when this was written (late 1700s), the love of Christ and the church was probably more prominently in view. “I am the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the Valleys. As the apple tree among the trees of the field, so is my Beloved among the sons. . I sat down at his banqueting table, and his banner over me was love. . .” For the lines, “leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills,” Billings created a perfect cascade of melody, with the choir’s voices tangling into a perfect picture of flight and pursuit across the hilltops.
Second best is an arrangement of Psalm 42. “As the hart panteth for the water brooks, so my soul longeth after thee, O Lord.” At one point, the song seems to halt completely in rapt meditation on the phrase, “for the Living God,” as the two halves of the choir answer each other over and over again with these words, the sum of all desire.
Other songs on this CD include “The Lord is Ris’n Indeed,” an Easter hymn which celebrates Christ’s victory over death, and humanity’s inclusion in that victory; “Samuel the Priest,” written for the death of a Boston minister named Samuel, which uses some of the saddest lines from the psalms of lament; “David’s Lament for Absalom,” with a heart-breaking arrangement of the words, “O Absalom, my son, my son: would to God I had died for thee, O Absalom my son!”; “They that go down to the sea,” an expansion on the verse in the Psalms about seafarers seeing the works of God follows a ship through a dreadful storm (with amazing word pictures on waves rising into heaven, and sailors staggering on the deck), the calm that follows, and the joyful return to harbor.
I don’t know why Billings’ work is not more widely known. In my opinion, it’s equal to Bach’s choral works for complexity of melodic lines (Billings was a master of the fuguing style) and complete harmony between the words and the pictures painted by the melodies. You can listen to a song six times, and every time notice a new combination of voice lines. There are so many details, they can’t be grasped in just one or two hearing. (Plus, it’s in English, and written by an American. Forget about Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Billings is an American genius.)