For SATB Choir. A boisterous celebration of the Easter story by colonial composer William Billings.
“An Anthem for Easter” was originally published in 1787, and it is probably Billings’ most well-known and popular anthem. It is found in Volume 3 of The Complete Works of William Billings, issued between 1977 and 1990 by The American Musicological Society and The Colonial Society of Massachusetts. In the Introduction to Volume 3, the editor, Hans Nathan, writes at length about this important piece. “The work appeared in two versions published by Billings himself, one advertised in 1787 and the other, with the addition of a newly composed twenty-four-measure section in the middle, issued in 1795 (p. xxvii).” The entire text is a mixture of Biblical lines together with various lines from Edward Young’s long poem titled “The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality.” Billings rearranged various lines from Young in order “…to construct a text which succinctly tells of man’s concurrent triumph with his risen Lord (p. xxvii).” The expanded version shows much better how the ideas in the text fit together. We are not suddenly faced with “Then I rose…,” for the additional lines of text “…provide a smoother transition of thought and a more convincing sequence of events (p. xxviii).” The expanded version has not proven to be as popular as the original, in part perhaps because of the greater difficulty of the added section. The additional measures, mm. 67-90 in the present edition, can be omitted, but I believe the variety and clarity that they bring to the piece are worth the extra effort.
Billings’ anthems are for mixed voices—bass, tenor, alto, and soprano—or, as his text in “Universal Praise” reminds us, bass, tenor, counter, and treble. The melody is invariably in the tenor. While we would typically be inclined to balance the choral parts in favor of the melody, Billings calls for choral balance in favor of the bass. In fact, he asks for at least twice as many bass singers as on the other parts. Sometimes, the bass line seems to have been doubled at the lower octave. For variety, it is appropriate at times to have some tenors double the soprano line an octave lower, and some sopranos to double the tenor line an octave higher. Billings considered this effect to be “sweet and ravishing,” and “esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatever, framed by human invention.”
Billings’ original note values are maintained in the present edition. The original key is maintained as well. Performers should feel free to eliminate the repeats to achieve a more desirable length. The keyboard reduction is provided for aid in rehearsal.
Various performance choices in dynamic variations are possible, though in general, a great deal of fussiness with interpretation does not fit well with this style of writing. The rhythmic pulse should be kept strong and regular, and the essential ruggedness of the style should not be disguised, whatever interpretive choices are made.
Thomas Gibbs, editor
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