William Billings

William Billings (1746-1800) was the first native-born professional composer in the United States. He wrote hymns, sometimes with his own words, and was also a singing master.

The son of a Boston tanner, William Billings evidently received a common-school education. At an early age he went into his father's business. Billings enthusiastically joined the two-generations-old singing-school movement of the Congregational churches. He taught himself composition from hymnbooks, especially William Tans'ur's Royal Melody Compleat, or The New Harmony of Zion (London, 1755; reprinted in seven Boston editions, 1767-1774), which had a pedagogical preface on "the grounds of musick." He chalked his notes on the tannery walls and hides and once declared there was nothing connected with the science of music that he had not mastered. He scoffed at the rules, proclaiming "Nature is the best dictator."

The Revolutionary patriot Samuel Adams enjoyed singing in Billings's viol-accompanied choir. The Brattle Street and Old South churches engaged Billings to teach hymns and anthems, as did many other Congregational churches in Massachusetts and Episcopal King's Chapel.

Billings was 22 when he wrote a remarkable round, "Jesus Wept," for four voices, although he did not compose fuguing tunes, or contrapuntal part-songs, for another decade. Paul Revere engraved Billings's first hymnbook, The New England Psalm-Singer (1770). Eight years later Billings published a much improved version, The Singing Master's Assistant, in which he added a text beginning "Let tyrants shake their iron rod" to his earlier tune "Chester." This hymn, of unexpected delicacy as well as lustiness, was very popular during the Revolutionary War. Another hymn, which reappeared with new words, "Methinks I hear a heav'nly host," runs as a theme song through all his work. The contrived discords of "Jargon" may actually be satirizing Billings's own earlier primitivisms.

Billings left tanning to open a music shop, where pranksters on one occasion slung howling cats with their tails tied together over his sign. He was an energetic and good-humored man, blind in one eye, with a withered arm and legs of unequal length. He dipped snuff, not by the pinch but by the handful, from his leather coat pocket. His voice drowned out even a stentorian pastor of Brookline, who complained that he could not hear himself next to Billings. Billings, however, urged the propagation of soft music "to refine the Ears."

The last collections Billings published were The Suffolk Harmony (1786) and The Continental Harmony (1794). After the Revolution his music was considered outmoded in New England, and he died neglected. But it took a new lease on life in the South and on the frontier in the West.

Although Billings's compositions sound surprisingly medieval for the age of Mozart, they reflect American Revolutionary and Federal vigor. They represented a stage in the rising bourgeois culture of America. Through sheer bravado and industriousness Billings sometimes even achieved artistic success.

Further Reading on William Billings

All of Billings's publications survive in rare-book collections. Harvard University Press brought out a facsimile edition of Continental Harmony with an introduction by Hans Nathan in 1961. The most convenient introduction to Billings's work is W. Thomas Marrocco and Harold Gleason, eds., Music in America … 1620-1865 (1964).

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