Fantasy on a Theme by William Billings

Fantasy on a Theme by William Billings


for SATB chorus with SSAA semi-chorus

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Completed in January, 2008.

Dedicated to the Pacific Chorale, John Alexander, Artistic Director. Premiered by the Pacific Chorale, directed by John Alexander, on March 29, 2008.

Text: from “Fairfield” and “A Canon of Four in I” by William Billings (1746-1800).

Program Note

I grew up surrounded by bluegrass, old time, and other folk music styles. This music always carried an air of mystery - who composed these tunes? How had they changed, and grown, as they were passed from one musician to the next? The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with the music of William Billings, whose works have been fully adopted by folk musicians over the last two centuries. This composer, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, wrote pieces of such unique character that he has been called the “father of American choral music.” Billings composed some of the country’s first significant musical works, and they continue to be performed in both classical and folk contexts.

Thus, when I was asked to combine the same two genres in a piece for the Pacific Chorale, I immediately thought of Billings’ works. Fantasy on a Theme by William Billings is a choral meditation on two of his sacred Lenten pieces: Fairfield and When Jesus Wept. The main chorus starts the piece with the text of Fairfield, set to new music. As they call out to their Lord for forgiveness, a small semi-chorus of treble voices responds with the circular canons of When Jesus Wept. These two groups, the old and the new, search for redemption, and they eventually find solace in the cleansing images of water.