Friday, December 11, 2009

The art of composition

According to Francis H. Jenks, "William Billings...stands in our musical history as the first self-taught native composer." (The New England Magazine. Volume 17, Issue 5, January 1895) There will always be those who tout William Billings as some kind of eccentric native genius, yet all the while lamenting "What a god-send it would have been to him, what would he not have thought, what possibly have done, had there, by any chance, fallen into his hands some fugues or other compositions, some harmonized chorals even, of Sebastian Bach or Handel!" (The Atlantic Monthly - "Our Dark Age in Music" - Volume 50, Issue 302, December 1882) But such training can ruin as well as enhance genius. I am quite satisfied with undiluted, straight-up Billings.

"Perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning Rules of Composition; to those I answer that Nature is the best dictator, for not all the hard, dry, studied rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any person to form an air...It must be Nature, Nature who must lay the foundation. Nature must inspire the thought...For my own Part, as I don't think myself confined to any Rules of Composition, laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down Rules) that any one who came after me were in any ways obligated to adhere to them, any further than they should think proper; so in fact I think it best for every Composer to be his own Carver.

"Perhaps some may think that I mean and intend to throw Art entirely out of the question. I answer, by no means, for the more art is displayed, the more Nature is decorated. And in some sorts of composition there is dry study required, and art very requisite. For instance, in a fugue, where the parts come in after each other with the same notes, but even here, art is subservient to genius, for fancy goes first and strikes out the work roughly, and art comes after and polishes it over." (From the writings of William Billings)

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