Music and Art: Copley and Billings

By Cathy Fuller

I've been exploring pairings of art from the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with music written around the same time that art was created.  If you've ever spent time at Boston Common, you may have seen this plaque:

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

William Billings has come to be known as the father of American choral music – creator of a unique and recognizable style. But while his music was immensely popular, he died in poverty – a victim of an America with no copyright laws, his best tunes printed without permission in hymnals far and wide. The plaque refers to an unmarked grave, and Billings was employed for a time as a Boston street sweeper.

Virtually all of his music is written for four-part a cappella chorus. These hymns and anthems were published in book-length collections that were forgotten for a time, and then rediscovered with a passion in the 20th century. His 1770 publication of The New England Psalm Singer signaled the beginning of the “First New England School”, and his music is commonly sung today.

At just the same time that Billings was publishing his collection “The Singing Master’s Assistant” in 1778, American artist John Singleton Copley was painting one of his most dramatic and recognizable works.

"Watson and the Shark" was inspired by a real event that had taken place in Cuba twenty-nine years earlier. Brook Watson was a fourteen-year-old orphan working as a crew member on a trading ship. He had jumped from a boat in the harbor for a swim when he was suddenly and violently attacked by a shark. His shipmates had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore. They tried desperately to rescue Watson while the shark made three terrifying lunges. In his second swipe, he bit off the boy’s right foot. Watson was finally dragged on board and he survived. In fact, he became a successful London merchant and it was likely Brook Watson himself who commissioned a painting to capture the drama.

Copley was living in London to gain the approval of Britain’s art establishment – a Bostonian who had been known as the finest portraitist in America. Ultimately, he earned full membership in the prestigious Royal Academy. Watson knew where to go to get a masterpiece.

The painting that hangs so dramatically in the Museum’s Art of the Americas Wing is the second full-scale version that Copley painted. He realized the importance and popularity of what he had created, and so he painted it a second time. There is a third, on a smaller scale, as well.

It’s fascinating to consider just what Copley didn’t know in painting this drama: he’d never seen Cuba, and he’d never seen a shark (those strange shark lips give that away). There are studies that attempt to reveal just what artwork of the past may have served as models for many of the elements of Watson and the Shark. What’s most striking for me is the frozen quality of the moment. The desperate flailing acts as a kind of psychological underlay to the stillness of the snapshot. There is a stillness in the background, too, in the calm of the Havana harbor.

Go see it at the museum if you haven’t already. It’s a thrill to live it in the flesh, and easy to understand why it became so hugely famous in London.

Here is a clip from Billings’ hymn, “Chester,” from The New England Song Singer (later revised in The Singing Master’s Assistant). It was one of his most popular tunes, secondary in fame only to “Yankee Doodle” during the Revolutionary War. Interestingly, the name has nothing to do with the content—Billings named his hymns after places somewhat arbitrarily, so that the pieces could be identified, but the lyrics could be changed easily.

Billings: Chester (excerpt)

I’d love to hear your comments below about these works, the fascinating history behind them, or your experiences at the MFA- whatever you’d like!

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