program notes by composition > N > New England Triptych

New England Triptych

William Schuman

New England Triptych was inspired by the hymns of early American composer William Billings (see page 13). Schuman’s arrangement was written for the New York Philharmonic in 1954. It opens with “Be Glad Then, America,” moving from a somber opening to a vigorous treatment of the same theme. The second movement, “When Jesus Wept,” is a contemplative treatment of Jesus’ visit to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. The athletic finale, “Chester,” is based on a rallying cry from the American Revolution. Its words convey a burning desire for freedom which sustained the colonists through the difficult years of the Revolution.

William Schuman (1910 – 1992) was an American composer and music administrator. Born in Manhattan, he played violin and banjo as a child, but his overwhelming passion was baseball. In high school he formed a dance band where he played string bass. He earned a B.S. degree in Music Education from Columbia University. He taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College and won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Music. He went on to become president of the Juilliard School and first president of Lincoln Center.

William Billings (1746 – 1800) was an American choral composer from Boston. At the age of 14, the death of his father stopped Billings' formal schooling. He took up (hide) tanning and never received formal training in music. "He had one eye, a deformed arm and a harsh voice; he was lame in one leg; and he was addicted to snuff.”

Billings died in poverty and for a considerable time after his death his music was almost completely neglected in the American musical mainstream. However, his compositions remained popular for a time in the rural areas of New England, and a few of his songs were carried southward and westward. In the latter part of the twentieth century a Billings revival occurred and his works are commonly sung by American choral groups today.

Last updated on November 12, 2013 by Palatine Concert Band