William Billings was born in Boston, and is largely regarded as America’s first choral composer. He was dedicated to the art of singing, and listed as “singing master” in the Boston city directory until 1798. Billings lived during a violent period of America’s history. The Revolution began when he was 29-years old, and lasted until after his death, nearly half of his life. Billings’ Lamentation Over Boston bases its text on Psalm 137 (below), drawing parallels between the Israelites’ lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the unrest of his native Boston. It is a powerful and passionate piece of American history.
Psalm 137, King James Version
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Below is a performance by the Minneapolis-based group, Cantus. We are very pleased that one of our former members, Chris Foss, sings, arranges, and programs music for that stunning group of singers.