America, Africa, and Ireland

January 31, 2016 at 10:00 am

Colonial New England was largely literate for its time. Besides a Bible, many families might have owned a copy of the Psalms set to poetic verse by Isaac Watts. The region, being poor, lacked the musical instruments available to European audiences, and so, singing was the primary form of music-making. Everybody sang, and singing-masters made their living travelling from town to town, teaching people to read music, sing, and selling their scores.

William Billings is one of my favorite composers; you might even call him the first great American composer. His music and life perfectly embody the revolutionary American spirit. He was a tanner by trade, but found his passion in composing and singing. He had only one eye, one of his legs was shorter than the other, was unkempt, and probably stunk. His music is rough and angular, lacking any grace that might be found in late 18th century European music.

There is a tradition of giving hymn tunes names; very often, the name of a city – for example, there are hymn tunes named London, Cranham, Richmond. This is why one of Billings’ best loved tunes is called Africa, a place to which I’m sure he never traveled. Its bold melody (found in the tenor voice – not the top note) skyrockets into the high range, capturing the spirit of Watts’ emotional outpouring.

This style of music-writing and singing is today known as Sacred Harp. It is an uniquely American invention, a sort of degenerate grandson of English choral music. And it’s fun to sing, so much so that Sacred Harp singings now occur all over the world. This video comes from a singing in Ireland.


The Many Faces of Death

January 30, 2016 at 10:00 am

This post isn’t meant to be morbid; I just want to point out how an artistic idea can grow, bloom and flourish. In chronological order:

  1. Date unknown: humans or pre-humans become aware that they everyone will eventually die
  2. Ancient: humans create artwork depicting death and the afterlife
  3. Medieval: poetic idea of “Dance of Death” – no matter what one’s station in life is, we begin and end the same
  4. 18th c.: Matthias Claudius writes the poem “Death and the Maiden”
  5. 1817: Franz Schubert writes an art-song (in German, lied) using Claudius’ poem (you can hear it here)
  6. 1824: Schubert writes a string quartet, whose second movement uses the same music as the art song he wrote seven years earlier

The quartet is a lengthy piece, and was written just four years before the composer died, at 32 years old. I’m not sure if he saw death dancing at his door at the time; not many of us know when, but we all know that he will.

7. afterthought – 1971, George Crumb‘s piece Black Angels quotes “Death and the Maiden” and freaks us all out big time.



Well, That Escalated Quickly

January 29, 2016 at 8:30 am


Talk about a bold opening. Pablo de Sarasate belongs to a group of composers who wrote showcase pieces primarily to show off their instrumental skills (perhaps the most well-known of these composers is Paganini). Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy airs”) is his most famous work, and invokes the music of the Romani people. You can hear some more Romani-styled compositions in some of my previous posts.