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Billings, Swan, et al. Between New Covers?


This is not William Billings 1746 -1800

With the help of our readers, an impressive anthology of “shape-note” choral music of America from 1770 to 1860—with some pieces in the same style dating to as recently as 2008— could be published. American Harmony, the brainchild of Nym Cooke, a leading American authority on early choral music, is to be published by David R. Godine, who calls this project “dear to my heart.” Godine is one of this country’s most respected publishers, both for the high quality of his choices and for the care he takes in their production.

Cooke has been working on this compilation since 1976, the year this author met him at a concert of some of this choral music held at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The music so charmed me that I signed up Cooke’s group on the spot, to provide a concert for Trinity Church during our nation’s Bicentennial celebration. (I also curated an exhibition, “Trinity Never Closed its Doors,” and our Honorary Chair was the late Walter Muir Whitehill, at the time Director of the Boston Athenæum.)

American Harmony will contain more than 176 psalm and hymn tunes, anthems, carols, elegies, patriotic songs, printed in shape notes, with sometimes as many as eight verses under-laid, and 100 illustrations. Cooke also plans to include a CD with 35 examples performed by his chorus, also called American Harmony.

Enthusiasts will recognize quite a few of Cooke’s selections, supplied from the composers’ own tunebooks wherever possible, and very carefully checked for accuracy. Cooke adds that “Many who have been singing shape-note music for years will likely not recognize at least 50 titles, which to our ears are every bit as beautiful and powerful as their better-known companions.”

Title-page of Oliver Brownson’s Select Harmony (n.p., but likely Simsbury, Connecticut, 1783)

Cooke’s American Harmony came about after two decades of music library work at Harvard University, teaching at College of the Holy Cross, and research in early New England sacred music, slowed down by graduate studies and launching a family. In the process, he expanded the book’s scope to include music of the mid-Atlantic, Appalachian, and southern states. He has been teaching at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, MA, for 12 years. A 1974 graduate of Harvard College, he received his Ph.D. in music history/musicology from the University of Michigan and has contributed a chapter to The Cambridge History of American Music (1998); an edition of the complete works of Timothy Swan for Music of the United States of America; and two volumes of Christmas music for part-singing, Awake to Joy!, issued in 1995 and 2007 (with many additional printings). 

The project is endorsed by the Massachusetts Historical Society. I invite readers to click here for the particulars. The deadline to meet the Kickstarter goal is March 15.  At this writing, more than one third of the $30,000 has been pledged.

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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  1. I received an email this morning saying that the Kickstarter campaign for publishing American Harmony more than met its goal. So thank you to those BMInt readers who pledged.

    On another note, members of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund Inc. board (my spouse is treasurer and I get to go and enjoy refreshments) asked me the other night about the portrait of Billings. Lee put it up in an enthusiastic attempt to make the article more appealing. Regrettably, there is no known photo of William Billings. But there IS his music…

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 3, 2017 at 12:34 pm

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