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Billings, William (1746-1800)

William Billings (1746-1800)

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Composer

Beginnings. Born in Boston on 7 October 1746, William Billings was the first American composer. Like Copley, William Billings was a son of the colonial working class. Without the benefit of much formal education, let alone the chance of attending college (which remained a privilege of the genteel class), both men nevertheless managed to realize some remarkable artistic talents. Unlike Copley, however, Billings gave expression to a provincial, American culture instead of aspiring to the cosmopolitan ideal of British culture. At no time in his life would Billings ever achieve the social and economic success accorded to gentlemen, but given his fervent patriotism he may have regarded his artisanal background with pride. From his early teens Billings supported himself as a tanner. Like most colonial musicians, he apparently received his first musical education at singing schools; in 1769 he advertised the opening of his first singing school with John Barry, a former choir director at the New South Church who was probably Billingss main teacher. Billings never mastered any instrument but instead made the psalm the object of his musical innovations. Because it was integral to religious worship and supported by churches throughout the colonies, the psalm was the most common and important musical form in America before the nineteenth century.

Accomplishments. At the age of twenty-three Billings had already composed more than one hundred original pieces of sacred music, and in 1770 he published his first tunebook, The New England Psalm Singer. Only a dozen or so American-composed tunes had previously been published. Collecting more than 120 new compositions, The New England Psalm Singer was the first published compilation of entirely American music and the first tunebook composed by one American composer. Perhaps even more significant as a sign of both Billingss intentions and the times in which he lived, he advertised the work as never before published and stressed that it was composed by a native of Bostonmade in America by an American. Published by Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who also published The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, a major Patriot newspaper, and including an engraving by Paul Revere, the book suggested that Billings was strongly aligned with the Rebels. His tunebook is striking for the manner in which it boldly signals these nationalist sentiments. For example, Billingss best-known tune, Chester, declares:

Let tyrant shake their iron rod
And slavry Clank her galling Chains
We fear them not we trust in God
New Englands God for ever reigns.

His second published tunebook, The Singing Masters Assistant (1778), includes a paraphrase of Psalm 137 that refers to the occupation of Boston in 17751776. These selections captured the mood of confident defiance with which New England patriots entered the new era.

Innovations. For modern readers what makes the Billings compositions so striking is the manner in which he dispensed with conventions that had dominated the Anglo-American Psalm tradition. His tunes feature dance-like rhythms drawn from the popular music of the colonies, such as the Irish Jig; his melodies are borrowed from traditional Anglo-Irish folk songs such as Green-sleeves; and his texts are more secular than literary. His tunes include a four-voice structuretenor, treble, counter tenor, and bassand they developed increasing coordination of texts and music by including printed words with the tunes. He also pioneered the fuguing tune, which involved successive vocal entries and an overlapping of sung texts. The end result was a dissonant sound, stripped of European refinements. Before his death in 1800 Billings had published a total of six collections of tunes, which moved toward more-involved musical forms such as the anthem and explored more complex musical textures. The Psalm-Singers Amusement (1781) includes two extended concert pieces, which in their unusual choice of keys, variety of effects, and technical virtuosity represent some of Billingss most polished works. A separately published piece, An Anthem for Easter, remains the most popular anthem by an eighteenth-century American.

Impact. Although his music was reprinted by others dozens of times and performed throughout the new United States, Billings died in poverty. His visibility within American music did much to transform music from anonymous aids to religious devotion to an artistic medium, by which composers might project their own distinctive ethos and individual personality. In his prefaces, joke-tunes, and commentary Billings assumed a self-deprecating intimacy (Billings addressed the tune Jargon To the goddess of discord as a way of answering critics of his music) that helped further to make singing a truly popular art. In its playful exploration of a more natural and primitive wildness, Billingss music became a model for later American composers, such as Charles Ives, who would also experiment with received European conventions and use popular culture in their search for a distinctive American sound.

Sources

David P. McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billing of Boston: Eighteenth-Century Composer (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975);

Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

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William Billings

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

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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Billings, William

William Billings, 1746–1800, American hymn composer, b. Boston. A tanner by trade, he was one of the earliest American-born composers. He wrote popular hymns and sacred choruses of great vitality using simple imitative counterpoint—hence their designation as "fuguing tunes." He often wrote his own texts, breaking with the colonial New England tradition of using psalm verses as texts for hymns. His self-reliance and lack of musical training made him relatively independent of European musical fashions. As a singing master, he introduced the use of both pitch pipe and cello to improve the intonation of church choirs. A singing class he organized in 1774 became in 1786 the Stoughton Musical Society. During the American Revolution he wrote patriotic words to his best-known hymn, "Chester," beginning: "Let tyrants shake their iron rods,/And Slav'ry clank her galling chains." His songbooks include The New England Psalm Singer (1770), The Singing Master's Assistant (1778), and The Continental Harmony (1794).

See biography by D. McKay and R. Crawford (1974); M. Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings (1960, repr. 1972); K. Kroger, William Billing's Anthem for Easter (1987).

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"Billings, William." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Billings, William." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/billings-william

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Billings, William

Billings, William (b Boston, Mass., 1746; d Boston, 1800). One of first Amer.-born composers, he abandoned tanning for mus. Wrote over 340 pieces, mostly between 1770 and 1794, including much church mus., ‘fuguing tunes’ (essays in imitative counterpoint). Comp. patriotic songs. Among his printed songbooks were The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770) and The Continental Harmony (1794). Wrote popular Christmas carol Shiloh and choral pieces.

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"Billings, William." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Billings, William." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/billings-william