William Billings (b. Boston, October 7, 1746 – d. Boston, September 26, 1800) was an American choral composer, and is widely regarded as the father of American choral music. Originally a tanner by trade, and lacking formal training in music, Billings created what is now recognized as a uniquely American style.
"He had one eye, a deformed arm and a harsh voice; he was lame in one leg; and he was addicted to snuff." At the age of 14 his father's death stopped his formal schooling. He was married with six children. Billings died in poverty on September 26, 1800. His funeral was announced in the Columbian Centinel "Died- Mr. William Billings, the celebrated music composer. His funeral will be tomorrow at 4 o'clock, PM from the house of Mrs. Amos Penniman, in Chamber-street, West-Boston."
by Billings, "printed and sold by the author at his house near the White Horse
, Boston," 1781
by Billings, 1781
Virtually all of Billings' music was written for four-part chorus, singing a cappella. His many hymns and anthems were published mostly in book-length collections, as follows:
The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770)
The Singing Master's Assistant (1778)
Music in Miniature (1779)
The Psalm-Singer's Amusement (1781)
The Suffolk Harmony (1786)
The Continental Harmony (1794)
Sometimes Billings would revise and improve a song, including the new version in his next volume.
Billings' music can be at times forceful and stirring, as in his patriotic song "Chester"; ecstatic, as in his hymn "Africa"; or elaborate and celebratory, as in his "Easter Anthem". The latter sounds rather like a miniature Handelian chorus, sung a cappella. As might be expected from a composer who was very close to his roots in folk music, Billings' music shows a striking purity.
His "Jargon," written to a tongue-in-cheek text, contains jarring dissonances that sound more like those of the 20th century than of the 18th century. He also wrote several Christmas carols, including "Judea" in 1778 and "Shiloh" in 1781.
Billings as a writer
Billings often wrote the lyrics for his own compositions. Like the notes, the words are occasionally awkward but always forceful and vivid.
As an example, McKay and Crawford (see Books, below) compare Billings' metrical rendering of Luke 2:8-11 with that of Nahum Tate, thought to be the inspiration for Billings' work:
- While shepherds watched their flocks by night
- All seated on the ground,
- The angel of the Lord came down,
- And glory shone around.
- As shepherds in Jewry were guarding their sheep,
- Promiscusly seated estranged from sleep;
- An Angel from heaven presented to view,
- And thus he accosted the trembling few
- Dispel all your sorrows, and banish your fears,
- For Jesus our Saviour in Jewry appears.
Billings wrote long prefaces to his works in which he explained (often in an endearingly eccentric prose style) the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed. His writings reflect his extensive experience as a singing master. They also provide information on choral performance practice in Billings's day; for instance, a passage from the preface to The Continental Harmony indicates that Billings like to have both men and women sing the treble (top) and tenor lines, an octave apart:
- "...in general they are best sung together, viz. if a man sings it as a Medius, and a woman as a Treble, it is in effect as two parts; so likewise, if a man sing a Tenor with a masculine and woman with a feminine voice, the Tenor is as full as two parts, and a tune so sung (although it has but four parts) is in effect the same as six. Such a conjunction of masculine and feminine voices is beyond expression, sweet and ravishing, and is esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatever, framed by human invention.
Billings' work was very popular in its heyday, but his career was hampered by the primitive state of copyright law in America at the time. By the time the copyright laws had been strengthened, it was too late for Billings: the favorites among his tunes had already been widely reprinted in other people's hymnals, permanently copyright-free.
With changes in the public's musical taste, Billings' fortunes declined. His last tune-book, The Continental Harmony, was published as a project of his friends, in an effort to help support the revered but no longer popular composer. His temporary employment as a Boston street sweeper was probably a project of a similar nature.
Billings died in poverty at age 53, and for a considerable time after his death, his music was almost completely neglected in the American musical mainstream. However, his compositions remained popular for a time in the rural areas of New England, which resisted the newer trends in sacred music. Moreover, a few of Billings' songs were carried southward and westward through America, as a result of their appearance in shape note hymnals. They ultimately resided in the rural South, as part of the Sacred Harp singing tradition.
In the latter part of the twentieth century a Billings revival occurred, and a sumptuous complete scholarly edition of his works was published (see Books, below). Works by Billings are commonly sung by American choral groups today, particularly performers of early music. In addition, the recent spread of Sacred Harp music has acquainted many more people with Billings' music: several of his compositions are among the more frequently sung of the works in the Sacred Harp canon 1.
The Stoughton Musical Society, formed by former students of Billings, has carried on his tradition for over 200 years, and included twenty-seven Billings tunes in their 1878 music collection, The Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection of Sacred Music. Among the favorite tunes by Billings sung by this choral society are: "Majesty" and "Chester".
The modern American composer William Schuman featured Billings' American Revolutionary War anthem "Chester", along with two other of Billings' hymns, in his composition New England Triptych.
William Billings was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
^ William Billings
^ Gary and Mark (2007)
^ Nathan (1976)
Scholarly edition of Billings's works
Complete works of William Billings in four volumes, edited by Karl Kroeger:
McKay, David P. and Richard Crawford (1975) William Billings of Boston. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09118-8.
Gary, Charles & Mark, Michael. (2007). A History of American Music Education. Rowman & Littlefield Education: UK.
Nathan, Hans. 1976. William Billings: Data and Documents. Detroic: College Music Society.