Senior Project by Mahayla Bassett

“And I Saw A Mighty Angel” – The American Dream in Early Music

Introduction by Mahayla Bassett

The essence of the American Mentality is the self-made, self-taught person, and William
Billings was just that. Americans in the early days didn’t have much access to formal,
European-style training. Many Americans went to Europe to gain this training, feeling the lack of opportunities in a new world that was being built from scratch. But others embraced the clean new slate that America offered and used it to their advantage. A new type of uniquely American “art” started to develop in painting, poetry, music, and more. Formally-taught critics called these artists “rugged”, “self-taught”, and “crude”. But that was just the point: in America, the world was wide open for anyone to learn how to do or be anything.

William Billings was one of these uniquely American artists: a composer. At first glance,
he didn’t really look the part. Billings had his share of physical afflictions: he was born blind in one eye, one leg was shorter than the other, and one arm was withered. His voice was considerably raspy and his appearance was, to say the least, ungainly.1 But appearances aren’t everything. Billings’ influence on American music was profound, and he played a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s musical identity during its formative years. William Billings was the first man in America to adopt music as a profession. He opened a “Music Shop” in Boston, selling musical literature, offering his services as a singing teacher, and publishing his own books full of his own music. He started the Stoughton School of Music, America’s oldest music society and first singing school. At a time when European classical music dominated the scene, Billings was influential in the early development of an American sound that reflected the spirit and character of the new nation. His compositions often blended elements of folk tunes, hymns, and psalmody,
infused with a sense of patriotism and religious fervor.2

Billings taught himself the elements of musical composition from available music texts
(which were simply collections of elementary rules for writing simple harmonies). Dissatisfied with them, he invented his own “fuguing” style of writing, using counterpoint and harmony in a non-European way.3 Billings was also an ardent patriot and advocate of the American Revolution, and he adapted many hymns as war songs with new lyrics. These were America’s first popular songs.4

Billings’ music is often described as “naive” or “simple”, but he prided himself on being
self-taught. In 1770, Billings published his book The New England Psalm-Singer, also titled American Chorister. This book contains over 120 of his compositions and an essay about music and how to perform it. The frontispiece was engraved by his friend Paul Revere, and the songbook was the first collection of music completely written by an American.5 He wrote several other songbooks during his lifetime, in which he recorded his teachings about music. For instance, he believed that a good ear is preferable to a good voice, because a singer with a good ear could harmonize better. Billings also had his singers conduct or tap along with their feet, and he believed in the importance of an internal sense of rhythm, writing: “In Keeping Time the Hand may be a Guide, Yet Thought’s the Prime in which you must confide.”6

Lost among his more famous works, “And I Saw a Mighty Angel” is an anthem long-forgotten (Billings defined an anthem as “a divine song, generally in prose”7). Until now,
there were no recordings publicly available to listen to this beautiful work of music. I chose this song to record because it seemed only right to bring forward one of Billings’ great works, lost to time. Written in 1778, the stirring anthem is based on the text from Chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation, showcasing Billings’ mastery of harmony and counterpoint in combination with scriptural words. The piece exemplifies his experimentation with vocal textures and harmonies, as well as his penchant for dramatic expression.

Billings traditionally wrote a capella choral music. However, our version of “And I Saw
a Mighty Angel” is not sung by a choir, but rather by 5 people: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. This is partly due to the availability and talent of these singers. I justify this by using a quote from Billings himself: “…I had rather hear, four people sing well, than four hundred sing almost well.”8 Most of the singers in our version of this song also have little formal training and are mostly self-taught to sing well, just as the singers in Billings’ choruses would have been.

Things are best summed up by William Billings’ description of his own creative process:
“…for my own Part, as I don’t think myself confin’d to any Rules for Composition laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down Rules) that any who came after me were any ways obligated to adhere to them, any further than they should think proper: So in fact, I think it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver.”9 This is, in essence, the American Dream. Being self-taught was not a hindrance; in fact, it is the most important part of the accomplishment itself.

Special Thanks to all who participated in the project:
Mahayla Bassett, Soprano and Director
Amelia Frandsen, Alto
Jonah Geisler, Tenor
Michael Ellefson, Baritone and Recording Engineer
Ty Wilson, Bass

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice,
Who is worthy to open the book and to loose the seal thereof?
And no man in heaven or earth was able to open the book,
Neither to look thereon.
And I wept, because no man was found worthy to open the book,
Neither to look thereon.
And one of the elders saith unto me, weep not,
For behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and root of David,
Hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
And I beheld, and lo, in the midst of the throne stood a lamb as it had been slain,
Having seven horns, and having seven eyes,
Which are the seven spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth.
And He came and took the book out of the hand of Him who sat upon the throne.
And when He had taken the book, the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb.
The angels were mute as they listened with wonder,
The angels were mute, and in tacitness did wonder.
The angels were mute, and the saints did shout and sing,
Worthy the Lamb! Worthy the Lamb that was slain!
For He hath redeemed us to God and hast made us kings and priests,
And we shall reign upon the earth.
Then the whole multitude of saints and angels united their voices,
And sang with a shout:
Worthy the Lamb! Worthy the Lamb that was slain!
For He is worthy to receive glory and honor, wisdom and power,
Hallelujah! Amen!
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
Just and true are all Thy ways, O Thou King of saints.
And again they said,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen!

  1. .Morin, Raymond. “William Billings: Pioneer in American Music.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1, 1941, pp. 25–33. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Apr. 2024. ↩︎
  2. Morin, Raymond. “William Billings: Pioneer in American Music.” ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. “William Billings | Songwriters Hall of Fame.” | Songwriters Hall of Fame, ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. New England Psalm-Singer, 15. ↩︎
  7. Britton and Lowens, American Sacred Music Imprints, 25. ↩︎
  8. The Singing Master’s Assistant, 15. ↩︎
  9. As quoted in Britton and Lowens, American Sacred Music Imprints, 177. ↩︎