Music: The Indigenous Idiom
Music: The Indigenous Idiom
The First Tune Book. In 1770 William Billings published The New-England Psalm Singer, a collection of more than one hundred anthems, hymns, and psalms that he had written. This volume was the first tune book compiled by a single American composer, as well as the first published collection of exclusively American music. The New-England Psalm Singer prefigured an outpouring of American tune books that began during the 1780s. By 1800 more than one hundred American tune books had appeared in print. Designed for singing schools, The New-England Psalm Singer provided tunes and instructions for training American singers.
Fuguing Tunes. The New-England Psalm Singer includes the first “fuguing tunes” by an American composer, which exemplify how Billings drew on English church music for his tunes but still gave them a distinctive American cast. A fuguing tune is usually a song with passages that require different voices to sing different words simultaneously. According to Billings, a “fuge” consisted of “Notes flying after each other, altho’ not always the same sound.… Music is said to be Fuging, when one part comes in after another.” Although first developed by English composers, fuguing tunes became identified as a particularly American form, and they became immensely popular after the Revolution. By 1810 American tune books included approximately one thousand different fuguing tunes.
Billings’s Influence. The nationalistic impulses that inspired Billings’s work were even more evident in his
next tune book, The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), his most popular collection, owing partly to the patriotic character of its songs. Although a composer of sacred music, Billings chose texts more for their literary quality than their spiritual message, a tendency that reflected the decline of orthodox Congregationalism in New England. The New England tune books that followed contained an increasingly secular component. Other composers included many of Billings’s songs in their song collections, and his music was widely known and performed during the 1780s. He also published new tune books of his own in the 1780s and 1790s.
Democratic Music. Billings’s popularity owed much to the democratic impulses at work in his music, an approach to music following naturally from his own background. A tanner who taught himself music, Billings’s unpolished speech and manner reflected his humble origins. Hostile to formality and established authorities, he advised musicians, “Nature is the best Dictator,” and added, “For my own Part, as I don’t think myself confin’d to any Rules for Composition laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down Rules) that any who came after me were any ways obligated to adhere to them, any further than they should think proper: So in fact, I think it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver.” The spontaneous and boisterous character of Billings’s music expressed his anti-authoritarian spirit. He emphasized nature over refinement, urging singers to follow their own inclinations. Billings also drew his music from popular sources. His incorporation of folk and dance rhythms into his songs made them appealing to popular audiences and established their place in a vibrant American musical tradition.
Gilbert Chase, America’s Music From the Pilgrims to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987);
Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: Norton, 1983);