• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 46: Patriots' Day

Sorry for the delay, friends! Did you know that this past Monday was Patriots’ Day? Now, you might be asking yourself, “What the hell is Patriots’ Day?” Well, it’s a holiday observed in a very few states, commemorating some of the earliest battles of the American Revolutionary War: those of Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy (now, Arlington), Massachusetts.

If you’re like me, when you think of the American Revolution, you think of William Billings…and you should! He was (probably) the first American choral composer, and a prominent member of the First New England School. His most popular tune, “Chester,” is considered by many to be the original US national anthem. Fast-forward to the 20th century….

In 1944, the New York Philharmonic premiered William Schuman’s William Billings Overture. While that piece was never published and was eventually withdrawn by the composer, its expansion yielded one of Schuman’s most popular works—the New England Triptych, subtitled, “Three Pieces for Orchestra After William Billings.” Schuman himself offered the following preface in the score:

William Billings (1746–1800) is a major figure in the history of American music. His works capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deep religiosity, and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionary period in American history. I am not alone among American composers who feel a sense of identity with Billings, which accounts for my use of his music as a departure point. These three pieces are not a "fantasy" nor "variations" on themes of Billings, but rather a fusion of styles and musical language.

Each of the three movements is based on text by Billings. They are, “Be Glad Then, America…”

Yea, the Lord will answer

And say unto his people — behold

I will send you corn and wine and oil

And ye shall be satisfied therewith.

Be glad then, America,

Shout and rejoice.

Fear not O land,

Be glad and rejoice.


“When Jesus Wept,” which is, IMHO, one of the most beautiful works by an American composer in the entire repertoire…

When Jesus wept, the falling tear

in mercy flowed beyond all bound;

when Jesus mourned, a trembling fear

seized all the guilty world around.

And last, but certainly not least, “Chester…”

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,

And slavery clank her galling chains,

We fear them not, we trust in God,

New England's God forever reigns.

The foe comes on with haughty stride,

Our troops advance with martial noise,

Their vet'rans flee before our youth,

And gen'rals yield to beardless boys.

The performance features the Saint Louis Symphony and their Conductor Laureate, Leonard Slatkin—a combo whose commitment to American music is second to none. Enjoy! :)

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