Indications Concerning Contemporaneous Performance Practice in the Prose Writings of William Billings
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractChoral music in the United States before 1800 was almost exclusively composed by tunesmiths who also worked as singing masters. William Billings (1746-1800) was the most prolific of these composers, and, in 1770, he was the first individual in North America to publish a collection composed entirely of his own works. This collection was known as a tunebook, and was designed to assist in the teaching of musical fundamentals and vocal performance in the singing schools. Five additional tunebooks followed; three of these six contained lengthy prose introductions in which Billings addressed pedagogy, music theory, and sight singing. This prose provides important information about the performance practice of the period, including the issues of accompaniment, articulation and text, dynamics, balance and voicing, ornamentation, and vocal timbre. Previous researchers have often mistakenly grouped the music of the tunesmiths with the later southern hymnists. This has distorted many general notions of historically informed performance practice for the pre-1800 tunesmiths. An examination of what Billings specifically says regarding issues of performance practice in his tunebook introductions, as well as inferences from additional prose material, will help to guide modern conductors to more historically appropriate performance practice. A comparison of this information to prior research will isolate approaches that have previously been considered accurate performance practice, but may, in fact, be inappropriate for choral music of this genre. Finally, an understanding of the intended purpose of the compositions, as well as the historical context, will help to inform performance practice.
Degree ProgramGraduate College