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William Schuman: "New England Triptych, III. Chester"

July 25, 2010

Today, we will continue with the music of William Schuman and begin a series of three posts on his New England Triptych. This piece, as mentioned in yesterday's post, is made up of three movements that can all stand on their own. The three (in order) are Be Glad Then, America, When Jesus Wept, and Chester. Of the three, Chester is probably the most well-known, and therefore, we will begin with this, the final movement of the suite.

 

Chester is a piece that is familiar to most people who ever participated in a high school band, although the piece is certainly more than a piece conceived for high school bands. The piece is a series of variations based on the hymn tune Chester, the popular hymn tune by William Billings and one of the most patriotic anthems of the American Revolution. The tune first appeared in "The New England Psalm Singer" in 1770. The larger work by Schuman uses several twentieth-century compositional idioms including polytonality and pantonal chords. Combined with impressive variations and transformations of the original tune, Chester is certainly a piece to be reckoned with in its craftsmanship and organization.

 

William Schuman, New England Triptych, III. Chester

"The President's Own" United States Marine Band, Lt. Col. Jason Fettig, conductor

 

Below are program notes on the piece by William Schuman.

 

The tune on which this composition is based was born during the very time of the American Revolution, appearing in 1778 in a book of tunes and anthems composed by William Billings called The Singing Master's Assistant. This book became known as "Billings' Best" following as it did his first book called "The New England Psalm Singer," published in 1770. Chester was so popular that it was sung throughout the colonies from Vermont to South Carolina. It became the song of the American Revolution, sung around the campfires of the Continental Army and played by fifers on the march. The music and words, both composed by Billings, expressed perfectly the burning desire for freedom which sustained the colonists through the difficult years of the Revolution.

 

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,

And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,

We fear them not, we trust in God,

New England's God forever reigns.

 

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;

Our troops advance with martial noise,

Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,

And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.

 

What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?

What shall we render to the Lord?

Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,

And praise his name on ev'ry Chord.

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