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American Music

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

“Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental than good music.”
–George Washington, 1777

On this Independence Day I’ve been thinking about my country’s early music. Sometimes it’s rough and raw, sometimes as polished as anything from Europe. Here are some of my favorite recordings.

William Billings
The history lesson begins with the masters of New England singing schools. The schools were part of the Puritans desire to regularize congregational singing which, according one Puritan minister in 1721, was a “horrid Medley of confused and disorderly Noises.” The singing masters at these schools were itinerant musicians,tradesmen and frequently composers. The best of these was William Billings (1746-1800).

My favorite recording of Billings’s music is His Majestie’s Clerkes’ A Land of Pure Delight. Most of the famous Billings tunes are here, with the exception of “Chester,” which was the unofficial national anthem during the Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary Times
Some of the best songs of the Revolutionary period were set to pre-existing tunes and many were British ballads, dance tunes and hymns. Here are some records that I think capture the essence of the times.

Music of the Revolution: The Birth of Liberty on the New World label is one of the best. The record has military music, patriotic songs and religious anthems. The recording also has some songs that present the Tory side of the struggle. These are hardly historically informed performances, but they are plenty powerful.

The best recording of the music of the period is Liberty Tree: Early American Music 1776-1876. The Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen presents a mix of patriotic anthems, bawdy songs, ballads and dances. Cohen’s exhaustive research turned up some obscure numbers but it’s the familiar “Yankee Doodle” that is presented as a racy song with references to Boston’s gay community. Lots of great stuff here: there’s a stirring version of “Chester” with fife and drums and some moving singing by bass Joel Frederiksen throughout. This is the essential recording of the music from a time that changed the course of civilization.

The Federal Period
The war was won and European-trained musicians were in the cities performing for the elite while the countryside was home to working-class amateur musicians who formed “bands of musick” and sang unaccompanied choral music.

Music of the Federal Era is another gem on the New World label that presents music from the Republic’s early days with emphasis on the more genteel chamber music heard in salons of the wealthy.

Sacred Harp
As the nation grew people gathered at camp meetings to hear some high-octane preaching and sing hymns and anthems. Some of the tunes of the New England singing masters found their way South and new tunes were also added. This groundswell of sacred singing resulted in the creation of such songbooks as:
The Kentucky Harmony, The Missouri Harmony and The Sacred Harp, arguably the most famous collection. Rivers of Delight, American Folk Hymns from the Sacred Harp Tradition performed by The Word of Mouth Chorus is a classic recording on Nonesuch that presents this music in all its raw, unaffected power—it is a masterpiece.

Last but not least are the contributions Moravians made to  American musical life. These German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in 1741, introduced European composers to America, Haydn being a notable example. They their own musical traditions and Lost Music of Early America, Music of the Moravians performed by Boston Baroque on the Telarc label is a fantastic introduction to their music.

More please
If you can find them, you will want to track down some additional recordings:

In Freedom We’re Born
(Colonial Williamsburg WSCD 124)
Period instrument performances of colonial songs.

Heavenly Meeting
(Northern Harmony NHPC 103)
Shape note music, gospel and English West Gallery music

The American Vocalist, Spirituals and Folk Hymns 1850-1870
(Erato 2292 45818)
The Boston Camerata in folk-inspired hymns.