The American composer and teacher of choral singing William Billings was described by those who knew him as “moderately large, with short legs, one eye, a withered arm, and a habit of taking enormous amounts of snuff.” None of this, however, prevented the largely self-taught Billings from becoming one of the most respected musicians in New England by the late 1770s. Over his career, he produced more than 340 choral compositions, including “Old North,” published in his first collection of choral works, The New England Psalm Singer, and “Heath”, which appeared in his second collection, The Singing-Master’s Assistant. Both are fairly typical hymns and it was likely by simple chance that, some 200 years later, John Cage selected these particular compositions from Billings’s large œuvre as the basis for his Hymns and Variations. Yet the historical figure of Billings—a friend of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere—certainly would have appealed to Cage. Around the time of the American bicentennial (1776), Cage received a number of commissions from American ensembles wanting to program new American music, and his approach was to adapt late eighteenth-century American sources, such as popular melodies, church music, and choral music.

Hymns and Variations was composed in 1979, but Cage continued to cultivate proce-dures employed in his bicentennial works. The source hymns are subject to the process of “subtraction,” whereby only some notes of the originals remain. In some cases these notes are expanded to fill in the space left by the “subtracted” notes, in others the deleted pitches are represented by rests in Cage’s adaptations. A similar procedure is applied to the text: Cage retains only certain syllables of the original words. The result, according to Cage scholar James Pritchett, is “music that retains its eighteenth-century flavour, but has become quite Cagean in its aimlessness and unpredictability.” The subtraction process is applied to both “Old North” and “Heath”, and then repeated five times on each, for a total of ten variations.

A Deruchie