The colonial era composer was born on this day 260 years ago. I was first introduced to his music as I sifted through the New World label LP’s when I worked in public radio, particularly this recording, which I see is now available in cd format.
There are many great tunes and choral arrangements (on his choral wiki site) but I couldn’t locate a version of “The Dying Christian’s Last Farewell. I found it the highlight of the recording linked above. There’s a one minute sample of the piece and this brief description: “an enormously expressive meditation on death and resurrection.”
Billings was probably the most accomplished of the group of mostly New England composers who defined a distinctive American style in sacred music. One can hear the roots: classical composers like Handel, and sacred traditions of Anglican chant, not to mention the echoes of polyphony and plainsong.
From the composer’s own pen:
Perhaps some may think that I mean and intend to throw Art entirely out of the question. I answer, by no means, for the more art is displayed, the more Nature is decorated. And in some sorts of composition there is dry study required, and art very requisite. For instance, in a fuge, where the parts come in after each other with the same notes, but even here, art is subservient to genius, for fancy goes first and strikes out the work roughly, and art comes after and polishes it over.
This sort of American music soon gave way to the more polished sounds imported from Europe. Churches in American cities set aside their growing heritage in favor of the music floating over from the other side of the Atlantic. Some of the early colonial music migrated to the rural areas, and especially Appalachia for inclusion in the shape note hymnals of the 19th century.
In the last few decades, the music of Billings and his contemporaries have been revived as people look to various genres of early music for modern inspiration.