The Music Of The Puritans


His greatest successes were his “fuguing tunes,” choral pieces interspersed with short fugato passages, which Billings launched on their short, buoyant American career. As he says of his favorites: “More than twenty times as powerful as the old slow tunes. Each part striving for mastery and victory. The audience entertained and delighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one and sometimes for another. Now the solemn bass demands their attention; next the manly tenor; now the lofty counter; now the volatile treble. Now here, now there, now here again! O ecstatic! Rush on, you sons of harmony!”

Billings claimed to have exerted himself to the utmost to “preserve the modern air and manner,” yet in trying for an approximation of Handel’s choral fugues he groped back instead toward the counterpoint of an earlier age. The result has a special appeal today. Many contemporary composers have an aversion to ear-lulling diatonic scales, steady rhythms, “classic” harmony. Certainly he created in his fuguing tunes the first American musical art form. Banished into the hinterlands for generations by changing tastes, these compositions are now coming back into their own—appreciated by musicians, ready and able to give a much wider public high delight.