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Early American Choral Music - Billings / Hillier


Release Date: 05/08/2001 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 3957048   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

"The performances are notable for their impeccable musicianship, full-throated tone, warmth and security of blend and expressive intelligence, qualities that have long characterized the Clerkes' musicmaking... highly recommended." - Chicago Tribune 'As heard on NPR'

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This is a bumper collection of William Billings, bringing America's first major original into the British record catalogue on an appropriate scale. Billings, who lived around Boston from 1746 to 1800, worked as a tanner, although he managed to compose some 340 choral works. In style these reflect the practices of the English Parish Church, as distinct from the more sophisticated Cathedral traditions. But the rugged
Read more open fifths and parallel fifths and octaves go back much further to habits of thought virtually unchanged since the Renaissance. So it is particularly suitable that an early-music conductor such as Paul Hillier should add Billings to his list—a long one, if his direction of groups such as the Hillier Ensemble, London Baroque and Western Wind is added to the less familiar His Majesties Clerkes. Hillier has also pioneered the work of Arvo Part, so the present fashion for spiritual minimalism could easily extend to the timeless amateur choralism of Billings. A local chronicler described him as: ''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 spake and sung and thought as a man above the common abilities.''

Like many American composers since—Cowell and Partch, for example in the twentieth century—Billings produced his own textbook of musical theory and practice. He fitted in with Parish Church traditions where the melody, in the tenor, was composed first; then a bass was added; then a soprano, followed by an alto. This practice is illustrated by the way Hillier presents Africa, for example, one of the simplest of the hymn-tune types. The first verse is for tenor and bass; the next doubles the two parts by adding women's voices; the third adds the soprano; and only in the fourth verse are all four parts heard for the first time. After that the four parts have various doublings with both male and female voices, so the texture is a crescendo in richness.

Brookfield, another hymn-tune, was one of Billings's most popular works, judging by the number of reprints in his lifetime. Paul Hillier doesn't avail himself of the sharpened-leading notes offered in Karl Kroeger's monumental, scholarly edition of Billings so the effect makes Brookfield sound even older. Without being told that these works were by an eighteenth-century American composer, it would be hard to guess dates within at least two centuries. And matters would be even more confused if Billings's part-song Jargon had been included—a hymn to the goddess of discord which could have come from neo-classical Stravinsky.

The ruggedness of Billings is appealing. For some tastes His Majesties Clerkes may be too suave, but the other extreme could have been worse. Hillier explains that there is no point in trying to create a replica of what Billings actually heard. That sort of quest for authenticity could bring excruciating results from eighteenth-century New England, or our own Parish Churches! All the same, this collection has plenty of variety. The Funeral Anthem Samuel the priest may not plumb the depths: its simplicity has to make the point. The rhythmic vigour of the Easter Anthem The Lord is ris'n indeed is infectious and the short hymn Emmaus, ''When Jesus wept'', is one of the most moving of all. The recording is straightforward and well balanced, and texts are provided.

-- Peter Dickinson, GRAMOPHONE Review of original release, HM 907048
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Works on This Recording

1.
David's Lamentation by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1778; USA 
Language: English 
2.
Samuel the priest by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1786; USA 
Language: English 
3.
O Praise the Lord of heaven by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1794; USA 
Language: English 
4.
Africa by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1770/1778; USA 
Language: English 
5.
Brookfield by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1770/1778; USA 
Language: English 
6.
Creation by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1779/1794; USA 
Language: English 
7.
Shiloh by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1786; USA 
Language: English 
8.
Is any afflicted by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1778; USA 
Language: English 
9.
Emmaus by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1778; USA 
Language: English 
10.
Jordan by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1786; USA 
Language: English 
11.
I am the rose of Sharon by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1778; USA 
Language: English 
12.
Rutland by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1781; USA 
Language: English 
13.
The Lord is ris'n indeed by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1787/1795; USA 
Language: English 
14.
As the hart panteth by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1770; USA 
Language: English 
15.
Hear my prayer, o Lord by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: 1770/1778; USA 
Language: English 
16.
They that go down to sea "Euroclydon" by William Billings
Conductor:  Paul Hillier
Orchestra/Ensemble:  His Majesties Clerkes
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1781; USA 
Language: English 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  4 Customer Reviews )
 William Billings expressed superbly May 22, 2013 By Jeff F. (Surprise, AZ) See All My Reviews "This exciting recording portrays William Billings music at its finest. The crisp, clear tunes take me back to the days where I participated in leading "lessons" and singing tunes (shape note singing) from the Sacred Harp singing book - which included many of Billings' works. There is no thrilling experience like this till you have participated in singing these works in a Sacred Harp singing convention, or the next best thing: listening to these great selections from this late 18th century Boston composer on this CD." Report Abuse
 Unique early American choral music May 21, 2013 By Brian Kane (Savage, MN) See All My Reviews "Billing's, a Boston tanner and self taught as a composer is generally credited with being the first American Choral Composer. His voicing and one dynamic level make his music sound like no other. His music is fun to perform and many pieces make excellent church anthems. The Hiller ensemble performs this music exactly as it should be done." Report Abuse
 Stolid and authentic. May 19, 2013 By G K Barranger (Covington, LA) See All My Reviews "This collection of Billings arrangements has one foot in the "shout tradition" of American hymnody. It is, in other words short of musical nuance: very few dimenuendos and no color shadings. In all of these idiosyncracies it is probably true to "the way things used to be" when folks would get together and deliver the music at a fortissimo level, gathered at the river so to speak. While I do not mean to put this tradition down, it would be interesting to hear these same pieces rendered with a due attention to musical subtlety – say, as if they were being conducted by the late Robert Shaw with solos by the late (and much missed) Salli Terry. Still, one cannot fault this recording for its indomitable honesty. One piece missing from the collection is By The Waters of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept. Oral tradition tells us that this was "probably by Billings" although according to no less a person than Lee Hayes, it is still within the realm of tradition. If anyone can pin this down and give it a solid attribution, it would be nice to know. At the moment the best rendition of it is on a recording by Don McLean, leading an impromptu three part choral round made out of his audience. The recording tends to lack intimacy, but this is not a fault of the producer, but rather a result of the full out "shout quality" of the vocal production of the singers. The conducting is crisp and authentic, or what we take to be authentic, since neither we (nor the Edison recorder) were around at the time of Billings. For those interested in early hymnody the disk is a "must have" for the serious collector. Garic Kenneth Barranger Producer and performer on RESCUE, a collection of hymns that have fallen out of common usage." Report Abuse
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