After my recent heavy post on potential political and cultural doom in various settings around the globe, I’m relieved to turn my thoughts toward something more hopeful, like Easter. And I’m looking forward to sharing some great Easter music in coming posts.
Today’s piece appeals to me for a couple of reasons: first, I’ve sung it in a choir myself, so it brings back good memories, and second, it gives me the opportunity to make an important point about choral music.
William Billings, the composer of Easter Anthem, was born in Boston in 1746. Trained as a tanner as a boy, he clearly had other, more musical ambitions. At the age of 23 he had this announcement placed in The Boston Gazette:
“John Barrey & William Billings Begs Leave to inform the Publick, that they propose to open a Singing School THIS NIGHT … where any Person inclining to learn to Sing may be attended upon at said School with Fidelity and Dispatch.”
One of his contemporaries maintained that Billings “was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still, he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.”*
Easter Anthem was first published in 1787, intended to be sung in four vocal parts, unaccompanied. I learned the song about 200 years later, when I became acquainted with shape note singing in the Sacred Harp tradition. This performance is by the Hastings College Choir:
The words, coming “from Scripture and Dr.Young” (Edward Young, 1681-1765), are here:
The Lord is ris’n indeed,
Now is Christ risen from the dead,
and become the first fruits of them that slept.
And did He rise?
Hear, O ye nations, hear it, O ye dead.
He rose, He burst the bars of death,
He burst the bars of death and triumph’d o’er the grave.
Then I rose,
then first humanity triumphant passed the crystal ports of light,
and seiz’d eternal youth.
Man, all immortal hail, hail,
Heaven, all lavish of strange gifts to man,
Thine’s all the glory, man’s the boundless bliss.
To introduce the important point I want to make, I present you with another performance of the piece, this time recorded at a Sacred Harp convention in Ireland in 2012.
The Hastings College choir is much more polished, with more singers right on their notes, and producing a sound that our culture is more likely to identify as melodious and pleasing. But having sung with a group like those Irish folks, I can attest that there is a potent energy and a genuine pleasure to be had in that kind of singing.
In a Sacred Harp Sing, you’re not striving for round tones or impeccable diction; you’re not focusing on smoothly blending with the other voices in your section. You are, in effect, flinging yourself enthusiastically at the music, and it’s a wild and wonderful experience.
In juxtaposing these recordings I’m not saying that one is a very skilled group and the other a less skilled group, although there is a difference in skill and preparation, certainly. I’m pointing out that the aim of each performance is different. The Irish performance isn’t up to the standard of a college concert, but the Hasting College singers didn’t manage to create the sound that is traditional for the Easter Anthem, either. They each set out to produce a certain kind of music, and succeeded.
These recordings are just two of the many different kinds of singing—some you might value more in a concert setting, and some call you to take a deep breath and join the making of a joyful noise. I’m glad for the variety.
In case you want to give this a try yourself, here’s the sheet music, for use by anyone ready to sing it.
*I don’t have an image to share, so I’m not sure what “an uncommon negligence of person” amounts to—it’s possible that he was sloppy with the tying of his cravat, or that his hose tended to sag. Fortunately, his music has long outlasted his reputation for “negligence of person.” Wikipedia’s write-up on William Billings is here.