If you don’t want to read William Schuman’s bio, skip down to the bottom of the page for a video version of sorts. For those who do: Born in the Bronx, William Schuman (1910-1992) dropped out of business school to pursue composition after hearing the New York Philharmonic for the first time. He became a central figure in New York’s cultural institutions, leaving his presidency of the Juilliard School to become the first director of Lincoln Center in 1961. All the while he was active as a composer. He received the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for music in 1943. He shared a fondness for wind music with his Juilliard contemporaries Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin, from which came many classic works for wind band.
Chester is the third movement of the New England Triptych, a collection of three pieces based on tunes by the colonial-era New England composer William Billings. Schuman wrote the collection in 1956 on a commission from Andre Kostelanetz and the orchestra at the University of Miami. Schuman created his own versions for band later, one movement at a time. Chester came first, right on the heels of the original. The orchestration of the two versions is obviously different in important ways, and unlike the other movements, Schuman actually expands his treatment of Chester in the band version. It begins as a chorale before being broken into pieces in an intense development that comprises most of the piece. Much later (1988) Schuman also produced a set of piano variations on the tune.
Nobody could describe the history of Chester better than Schuman himself (from the band score of the piece):
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.
Billings himself is described by William Bentley, of Salem, a contemporary, as “the father of our New England Music. Many who have imitated have excelled him, but none of them had better original power. He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person. Still he spake and sang and thought as a man above the common abilities.” Billings, born in Boston in 1746, started his career in life as a tanner’s apprentice but soon gave up this trade for music in which he was apparently self-taught. He organized singing schools, composing music for them which was all the more welcome because relations with England had reached the breaking point and the colonists were glad to have their own native music. Billings’ many “fuguing tunes” achieved great popularity, but by the time he died in 1800 this kind of music gradually fell into disfavor leaving Billings poor and neglected. Today given the prospective [sic] of history we see Billings as a major figure in American music. His indomitable spirit still shines through the sturdy tunes he wrote.
The Ball State University Symphony Band plays the band version of Chester:
The orchestral version, while broadly similar in its chorale-allegro design, takes a very different form than the band version does, and it is about half as long:
Schuman appeared as the mystery guest on the game show “What’s My Line” in 1962. Sadly, his episode of the show was removed from YouTube. Instead, you can watch this video portrait of the composer made by his publisher:
More on Chester at the Wind Repertory Project, Wikia Program Notes, an analytic paper by Christopher Ritter, and a high school listening assignment based on the piece (try it!). Schuman has bios on Wikipedia, his own official website, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, and Naxos. And William Billings has at least one giant column of a website devoted to him and his music.