William Billings

From Academic Kids

William Billings (October 7, 1746 - September 26, 1800), American choral composer, is regarded as the father of American choral music and hymnody. Originally a tanner by trade, and lacking formal training in music, Billings created what is now recognized as a uniquely American style.


The music

Virtually all of Billings's 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's 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's music shows a striking purity.

Billings as 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's metrical rendering of Luke 2:8-11 with that of Nahum Tate, thought to be the inspiration for Billings's work:


While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shown 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 also 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, and include advice that would wisely be heeded by choral singers today.


Billings's work was very popular in its heyday, but it failed to last out the composer's lifetime, and he died in poverty.

The music continuted to be neglected for a considerable time after Billings's death. But the latter part of the twentieth century witnessed a Billings revival, particularly among performers of early music, and a sumptuous complete scholarly edition of his works was published (see Books, below).

The spread of Sacred Harp music in modern times has also increased the exposure to the public of Billings's music; several of his compositions are among the more frequently sung of the works in the Sacred Harp canon 1 (http://www.entish.org/sh/2002_denson.html).

The Stoughton Musical Society, formed by former students of Billings, has carried on his tradition for over 200 years.

The modern American composer William Schuman featured Billings's American Revolutionary War anthem Chester in his composition New England Triptych.


  • McKay, David P. and Richard Crawford (1975) William Billings of Boston. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691091188.
  • Complete works of William Billings in four volumes, edited by Karl Kroeger:
    • The New England psalm-singer. University Press of Virginia (1981). ASIN B0006YEU1U.
    • The Singing Masters Assistant, Music in Miniature. University Press of Virginia (1984). ISBN 0813908396.
    • The Psalm-Singer's Amusement. University Press of Virginia (1987). ISBN 0813911303.
    • The Continental Harmony. University Press of Virginia (1990). ISBN 1878528017.

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