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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Robert Russell BENNETT (1894-1981)
The Fun and Faith of William Billings (1976) [29:57]
William BILLINGS (1746-1800)
Be glad, then, America [5:16]
When Jesus wept [1:48]
Chester [1:52]
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
New England Triptych (1956) [14:41]
University of Maryland Chorus
National Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. April 1975, Constitution Hall, Washington DC

To celebrate America’s bicentennial the National Symphony of Washington DC commissioned Robert Russell Bennett to write a work, and he responded with The Fun and Faith of William Billings, which was premiered and recorded in the spring of 1975. The resultant LP on which it appeared, with the other pieces in this CD, was the official souvenir recording of the JFK Center for Performing Arts, and was recorded for London and made available from the National Symphony by mail order for the princely sum of $6.50.

Bennett’s 30-minute mosaic of hymnal and other tunes for orchestra and chorus is interesting inasmuch as he clearly left some of Billings’s original scoring largely intact. Bennett contributed an introduction and linking passages and framed and formed the construction with warmth and sensitivity. The tunes are light in the main, sometimes reverential – thus forming contrasts - and contain four-part choruses, anthems, hymns and the like. It helps to know your Billings to appreciate better the selection of tunes, but even so one can still pick out things from The Singing Master’s Assistant, a fine setting of I am the Rose of Sharon, moments of melodrama in the scoring – bass heft, percussion – and the deft colour enshrined in Hear, Hear O Heavens. The listener is very much on his own here as this series comes without notes, just a track-listing.

It was logical to include Billings’ Hymns in the LP, sung by the University of Maryland Chorus quite vividly. William Schuman’s New England Triptych is subtitled ‘Three pieces for orchestra after William Billings’ and was a similarly perfect fit. It receives a fine reading here, though it’s probably better known in the recording made by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester forces for Mercury. Hanson is significantly slower and more affectionate in When Jesus Wept, whereas Doráti treats it in a more sternly direct way. It was doubtless the bicentennial that accelerated interest in Billings. That year saw the publication of ‘William Billings of Boston’ by David McKay and Richard Crawford, a book that preceded by some years the first of four volumes of Billings’ complete works, issued between 1981 and 1990 by the University of Virginia Press.

The transfer of the LP has been generally well done. There are some ticks along the way though these are minor. As I said there are no notes, which removes the context of the original LP, which is apparently making its first-ever appearance on CD.

Jonathan Woolf



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