William Billings (1746-1800), is considered by many to be the foremost representative of early American music. Billings was born in Boston on October 7, 1746. Largely self-trained in music, he was a tanner by trade and a friend of such figures of the American Revolution as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Billings's New England Psalm-Singer (1770), engraved by Revere, was the first collection of music entirely by an American. (The image above is the frontispiece engraving for New England Psalm-Singer by Paul Revere)

Especially known among his compositions are his canon (round) "When Jesus Wept," the anthem "David's Lamentation," and the hymn "Chester," written to his own patriotic text and unofficially the national hymn of the American Revolution. Billings died in Boston on September 26, 1800.

 

(Excerpts from an article on William Billings by John H. Lienhard, University of Houston)

Anyone who's done much choral singing has sung William Billings's music. Ask what music came out of Colonial America: we get Billings and little more. Few sophisticated musicians think much of him -- I love his stuff. Historians have made little effort to know Billings. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians runs to almost 20,000 pages and it gives Billings only a page and a half.

Billings was born in Boston in 1747. He was poor and uneducated -- he supported himself much of the time as a tanner. But he also took up music when he was young and was teaching choral singing by the age of 22.

Biographers call him a gargoyle. He was blind in one eye with a short leg and a withered arm. But that's only the beginning. He practiced what a contemporary called "an uncommon negligence of person," and he was hopelessly addicted to tobacco -- constantly inhaling handfuls of snuff. That may explain why he only lived to the age of 54. He had a stentorian, tobacco-damaged bass voice and he seemed uninterested in any easy beauty of sound.

At 24, Billings published his first book of choral pieces. He called it The New-England Psalm-Singer, and Paul Revere engraved the frontispiece for it. He published five more volumes and several pieces of sheet music.

The New-England Psalm-Singer was the first book of American music. It began a tradition of musical grass-roots choral singing in America and Billings knew what he'd done. He delayed publication over a year -- until he could print it on paper made in the Colonies. No English imports for Billings. The book included his song Chester, which rivaled Yankee Doodle as an anthem of 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 for ever reigns.

Ben Franklin had said art would flow to the west -- to the new American Athens. What he got was Billings's grand idiosyncratic music -- no cultural continuity with anything. Billings's music emerged in the classical, rationalist age, with no trace of classical elegance. It's an artistic declaration of independence.

To know Billings, one should do more than just hear him; one should sing him -- four-square, almost-medieval harmonies, elaborate fugues, experiments with dissonance that foreshadow Charles Ives. He plays musical jokes, praises God, and dances into the erotic wonder of the Song of Solomon. Then he turns around and leaves us with one of the most exquisite short canons we've ever heard,

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound ..

The essential genius of America, and of Billings, was recognizing that full independence of Europe would eventually be gained only after we'd formed our own cultural roots.

 

From the writings of William Billings:

Perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning rules of composition; to those I answer that Nature is the best dictator, for not all the hard, dry, studied rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any person to form an air.. It must be Nature, Nature who must lay the foundation. Nature must inspire the thought.. For my own part, as I don't think myself confined to any rules of composition, laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down rules) that any one who came after me were in any ways obligated to adhere to them, any further than they should think proper; so in fact I think it best for every composer to be his own carver.

Perhaps some may think that I mean and intend to throw Art entirely out of the question. I answer, by no means, for the more art is displayed, the more Nature is decorated. And in some sorts of composition there is dry study required, and art very requisite. For instance, in a fugue, where the parts come in after each other with the same notes, but even here, art is subservient to genius, for fancy goes first and strikes out the work roughly, and art comes after and polishes it over.

Suppose a company of forty people, twenty of them should sing the bass, and the other twenty should be divided according to the discretion of the company into the upper parts. Six or seven voices should sing the ground bass, which sung together with the upper parts, is most majestic, and so exceeding grand as to cause the floor to tremble, as I myself have often experienced .. Much caution should also be used in singing a solo (sic); in my opinion 2 or 3 at most are enough to sing it well. It should be sung as an echo, in order to keep the hearers in agreeable suspense till all the parts join together in a full chorus, as sweet and strong as possible.

The following image is a dedication written by William Billings in a volume of 3 of his collections given to an acquaintance, and a note by the recipient referencing the death of Billings:

 


Excerpt from an article published in The New England magazine. / (Volume 17, Issue 5, January 1895) by Francis H. Jenks

"It was about 1770 that the Billings craze began. William Billings was a remarkable man in many re-spects; and the peculiar fever of which he was the cause was largely due to his strong personality. He stands in our musical history as he first self-taught native composer. A collection published at Philadelphia in 1761, entitled Urania, had furnished him with models for composition, and working from these he prepared a host of fugueing tunes, which through their very freshness, quickly commanded attention. Church music had acquired a dolefulness due to the slow pace that had become the fashion. Billings commanded liveliness, and his fugues favored greater animation than had seemed proper for the plain harmonies and steady rhythms of the older tunes. The head of the new school, a tanner by trade, was somewhat deformed with legs of different lengths, a slightly withered arm and a blind eye. He had a voice of tremendous power and a manner that brooked no opposition. There was no one to criticize his tunes or to controvert his theories, some of which were really shrewd and sound; and so long as he lived, which was until the century had nearly expired, he had hosts of followers."


Excerpt from an article published in The Atlantic monthly - Our Dark Age in Music - Volume 50, Issue 302, December 1882

"It was about this time (1774) that that eccentric genius, William Billings (born in Boston, October 7, 1747, died September 26, 1800), taught a singing-school in Stoughton, with forty-eight members, the best school then known.

That genuine old New England institution, the singing-school, began about 1720. It was the chief form of social intercourse shall we say society? In all the country villages; and in it psalmody, and gossip, and flirtation, we may well conceive, were learned together, or practiced without learning. Billings invented a new way of setting hymns and anthems, which was called the fuguing style. It became extremely popular because of its vivacity, the voice parts moving in a sort of mutual imitation (not fugue properly), in quick time, chasing one another round. O Mather! 0 Judge Sewall! The grave old heavy psalmody was startled and danced out of its sobriety. Here was a music that was found exciting; a lively rhythmical protest (for men had been drinking of the new wine of liberty) against the dry and dreary old music; a music flattering to the sense and a relief to the imprisoned spirit.

Whether it appealed to any deep religious sentiment or not, it set the singers in good humor, and responsive to the exhortation that we make a joyful noise. Billings was exceedingly prolific in this kind of composition, and had imitators, some of whom out-heroded Herod in their ventures on the sea of bold originality and native inspiration. His music had a flavor of its own, and showed a certain rude native talent and invention. Fugue it was not in any right artistic sense; of all that he was ignorant. What a god-send it would have been to him, what would he not have thought, what possibly have done, had there, by any chance, fallen into his hands some fugues or other compositions, some harmonized chorals even, of Sebastian Bach or Handel! See how he rhapsodized, in one of his spread-eagle prefaces, about his new music: It has more than twenty times the power of the old slow tunes; each part straining for mastery and victory, the audience entertained and delighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated; sometimes declaring for one part and sometimes another. Now the solemn bass demands their attention, next the manly tenor; now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble. Now here, now there, now here again.

Oh, ecstatic! Rush on, ye sons of harmony!

Indeed, it seems to have been a sort of musical horse-race. But there was this gain at all events: music was at last listened to as music, and not alone as ritual; it was thought worth the while in itself; there was a chance that it might come to something really musical in course of time. It was essentially a secular reaction against plain, solemn psalmody; but all within the house of worship, the choristers, drunk with the new wine, setting themselves up on their own account to do their part in the public service; no strait jacket any longer, but a general sunburst, and a breaking loose of the imprisoned school-boys."



Excerpt from Songs and Ballads of the Revolution. [The New England magazine. / Volume 19, Issue 4, Dec 1895] Written by Lydia Bolles Newcomb

About the middle of the last century there was born a man who may be called the father of church music in America, the promoter of choirs and singing-schools, and destined to become famous in his line, William Billings, a tanner of Boston, odd in appearance, eccentric in speech and manner, independent in thought and action, but with a soul filled
with music. He calls himself a musical enthusiast, and says: I have often heard of a poetical license; I don't see why with the same propriety there may not be a musical license. He spurned the rules of art, such as there were, and sung out of the abundance of his heart, using, it is said, the boards of his tannery and the sides of leather, upon which he chalked the melodies as they floated to his ears. He published five or six books of psalmody and harmony; and some of the tunes he wrote are still to be found in old collections of church music. He was a stanch patriot, and wrote the stir- ring semi-martial air, Chester, which attained great popularity during the war.

Among the stanch friends and admirers of Billings were Samuel Adams and Dr. Pierce of Brookline. In the church choir these two men stood side by side with the old tanner, a trio of voice and patriotic fervor which one can imagine made the edifice ring with the words and music here given. Billings had a special fondness for anthems and fugues. Of the latter he says: "It has more than twenty times the power of the slow tunes, each straining for mas- tery and victory, the audience meanwhile entertained and delighted, the minds surpassingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one part, and sometimes for another. Now the solemn bass demands the attention, next the manly tenor, now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble now here, now there, now here again."

From Early Concert-life in America (1731-1800)
By Oscar George Theodore

An item of interest connected with the concert on Nov 9 1764 is this that tickets were also to be had at Mr Billings's shop near the Post office and possibly we have in this the earliest musical reference in the papers to William Billings tanner psalmodist and composer whose music was to exercise such a strange fascination over our people for thirty long years. (italics added)

From Old Boston Days & Ways From the Dawn of the Revolution Until the Town Became a City
By Mary Caroline Crawford:

.......... deformed in person blind in one eye untidy in dress with one leg shorter than the other. He is saidto have chalked down his earliest compositions upon sides of leather in the shop where he worked.
But his music always had a spice of patriotism in it a quality much prized at the time of the Revolution and so greatly did the colonists like his work that the strains of his inspiring tunes were heard from every pipe in the New England ranks and led the way to victory on many a hard fought field.
Governor Samuel Adams took great interest in the enthusiastic choir singer and composer and helped his work to find the audience that it deserved. Real patriots indeed could scarcely fail to admire the earnestness of the man. His Lamentation Over Boston appropriated boldly the beautiful 127th psalm which he employed to lament the fact that Boston was in British hands. It begins By the rivers of Watertown we sat down yea we wept when we remembered Boston. In the same strain he continues If I forget thee O Boston then let my numbers cease to flow then be my muse unkind then let my tongue forget to move.
Retrospect Independence and Columbia as well as verses set to the air of Chester this last very popular in the camps of the Revolutionary army were other of Billings's productions. In 1778 he published an abridgement of his New England Psalm Singer which came to be known as Billings Best and certainly was a great improvement on the other work. In 1779 appeared Music in America containing thirty two verses from his previous books eleven old European tunes and thirty one new and original compositions. In 1781 The Psalm Singer's Amusement was given to the world and became exceedingly popular.
In spite of his popularity Billings was always poor as may be proved by the following appeal printed in the Massachusetts Magazine of August 1792 Addressed to the benevolent of every denomination:
The distressing situation of Mr Billings family has so sensibly operated on the minds of the committee as to induce their assistance in the intended publication of his work by subscription.
Billings is said to have been the first to introduce the violoncello into New England churches a great step toward the eventual introduction of the organ He was also probably the first to use the pitch pipe to set the tune He died in Boston September 26 1800....."


The Music of William Billings
Sheet music & MP3 collections

Immediately below on this page you will find 4 collections of the music of William Billings.

1. The first is a collection of PDF files of the choral sheet music of the Billings' Christmas music.

2. The second collection is a group of 29 PDF files of various choral compositions by Billings.

3. The third collection is a group of MP3 files of arrangements for small insturmental ensembles. These arrangements give an idea of how Billings' music can be used in instrumental settings to great effect.

4. The fourth collection is the most unusual. This a group of MP3 files of works of Billings' orchestrated, and arranged and performed using choral and orchestra synthesizers. This collection show just how versatile the music of Billings really is.

 

Christmas Sheet Music Of William Billings

We have prepared a collection of sheet music created as PDF files with some of the Christmas choral music composed by William Billings. You can download this collection in the form of a "zip" file at the link below. After your secure Paypal or credit-card payment is processed, you will be immediately directed to the download link. The collection includes:

 

Bethlehem
Boston (Shepherd's rejoice)
Charleston
Emanuel
Judea
Shiloh

 

 

 

Christmas music of William Billings
Credit card or Paypal - $2.00

If you have any questions about this collection, contact us by e-mail.

 

William Billings Sheet Music Collection

We have prepared another collection of sheet music created as PDF files with 29 pieces of choral music composed by William Billings. You can download this collection in the form of a "zip" file at the link below. After your secure Paypal or credit-card payment is processed, you will be immediately directed to the download link. The pieces included in this collection are:

Africa, America (2 versions)
Boston, Chester - (2 versions, one is from a 1792 fife book)
Connection, David's Lamentation
Easter Anthem, Framingham
I Am Come Into My Garden, I Am The Rose Of Sharon
Invocation, Is Any Afflicted, Jordan, Lamentation Over Boston, Majesty, Modern Musick Revelation
Richmond, Rochester, Sappho St. John's, St. Thomas
Universal Praise, Wake Every Breath, Washington, Washington Street, When Jesus Wept

William Billings sheet music - 29 pieces -
Credit card or Paypal $3.50

If you have any questions about this collection, contact us by e-mail.

The music of William Billings
arranged for instrumental ensemble

We have created an MP3 collection of 11 instrumental arrangements of the music of William Billings. You can download this collection in the form of a "zip" file at the link below. After your secure Paypal or credit-card payment is processed, you will be immediately directed to the download link.

MP3 - Samples from this collection:
Africa
Judea

William Billings Instrumental Arrangements (11 arrangements)
Credit card or Paypal - $4.50

If you have any questions about this collection, contact us by e-mail.

Modern Musick
(named after a William Billings composition)
This is a collection of 12 arrangements of Billings' compositions, orchestrated and performed using choral and instrumental synthesizers. These pieces are examples of just how versatile Billings' music really can be.

MP3 - Samples from this collection:
Jordon
Majesty

William Billings Instrumental Arrangements (11 arrangements)
Credit card or Paypal - $6.00

If you have any questions about this collection, contact us by e-mail.

 

Other early American music collections you might be interested in:

Fiddlin' Around
On The Way To A Revolution

Folk Music In Colonial America

An MP3 collection of Colonial and Revolution period tunes popular in America, arranged for fiddle with guitar accompaniment. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were both known and traveled fiddlers in their younger days in Virginia..... read about it on this page.

 

Early & Unique American Sheet Music

A collection of unique sheet music on American themes, including a song by Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration Of Independence, early songs dedicated to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a choral chant of the entire Declaration of Independence, lively piano compositions on American themes, a complete "periodical" article with music of Revolution era tunes and more...........

MP3 arrangements of music of two early American composers, Timothy Swan & Justin Morgan.

Unique Music Composed
In Early America

The following 4 links go to pages that present some examples and arrangements of interesting music composed in a young and free America.

Huzza For Liberty - This was a rousing popular drinking song

Two pieces of music composed on the death of George Washington:
Dirge On The Death Of
General George Washington
Mount Vernon

Ode For Independence

The America Hero

 

Songs Of Francis Hopkinson


Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was also one of the earliest composers in America. We have arranged 6 of his songs for solo guitar and flute.

Songs Of Francis Hopkinson


 

 


 

The Original American
National Anthem

You would not think that America, after fighting a war of independence against the English, would choose as its National Anthem, a Brit tune written for an English drinking club, right? Well, that's exactly what happened, even though we had our own American Revolutionary War composers! Read about it on our Original National Anthem page. And read about how school children and teachers in America have been contacting their elected officials to ask for official recognition of William Billings and perhaps even a "second national anthem" using his work "Chester".

And amazing as it is........
William Billings appears in HBO movie!

In the recent HBO miniseries about John Adams (pictured at left), in episode 1, there is a scene where the Boston patriots are meeting and at the end of the meeting, they sing a verse of the anthem Chester by William Billings. This may well be the first widespread recognition of the music of William Billings and the fact that Chester was the original National Anthem.
And even better, if you look at the credits of the John Adams series, there is an actor listed as playing the role of William Billings!

If you want, you can download and listen to instrumental MP3s of the anthem Chester, and an excerpt from Billings' Lamentation Over Boston, a piece he composed in reaction to the attack on and burning of Boston by the British. Both of these arrangements are from an upcoming CD of instrumental arrangements of the music of Colonial American composers.

 

From the 19th Century book "Early Concert-life in America (1731-1800)"
By Oscar George Theodore:

"...........originality and individuality attention to his name wherever psalms were sung in the Northern and Middle States and hardly a single psalm tune collection by other American psalmodists of that period is to be found in which Billings Muse does not prominently figure. In short his name and fame resounded in the remotest church choir and so called singing schools and without doubt he was the most popular composer in his days.
Yet Billings and this will cause surprise was in rather reduced circumstances for a correspondent in the Columbian Centinel Dec 8 1790 expressed his satisfaction in hearing that a number of benevolent characters are determined to bring forward a Concert of Sacred Musick for the benefit of Mr William Billings of this town whose distress is real and whose merit in that science is generally acknowledged and the announcement of the concert closed with these significant remarks:

'The pieces to be performed will consist of a great and it is expected a pleasant variety and whilst the charitable will rejoice in this opportunity to exercise their benevolence the amateurs of musick will no doubt be abundantly gratified The heart that feels for other's woes. Shall find each selfish sorrow less That breast which happiness bestow s Reflected happiness shall bless.
For the honor of Boston we hope that a sufficient number of tickets at 2 shillings each were sold to be of substantial benefit to Gov Samuel Adams proud but poor friend.'


Still if we remember that Billings born at Boston Oct 7 1744 had still to live almost ten years until he died on Sept 29 1800 we cannot but regret that the last years of this remarkable man should have been spent in poverty. Remarkable not only for his musical naivite enthusiasm latent talent and amateurish utterances but also in appearance. If Billings somewhat deformed blind of one eye one leg shorter than the other one arm somewhat withered and given to the habit of continually taking snuff attended the testimonial concert we may feel sure that Bostonians looked with pity and sympathy on this tanner musician.
"

A1783 poster anouncing a performance
of an Anthem composed by Billings..........

 

Lowell Mason & The "Better Music" boys -
The Case Of Early American Music Censorship

Just in case you are wondering exactly why it is that our earliest American composers such as William Billings remain relatively unknown (even amongst many musicians, composers and music university graduates)...... go to our Lowell Mason & the "better music" boys page to find out.

 

 

 

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