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Billington, Elizabeth (c. 1765/68–1818)

Billington, Elizabeth (c. 1765/68–1818)

English soprano in the late 18th century whose fame was so extraordinary that the term "a Billington" became synonymous with "a great singer." Born Elizabeth Weichsell or Weichsel in London, England, between 1765 and 1768; died in Venice on August 25, 1818; daughter of Carl Weichsell (a German-born oboist and clarinet player); her mother was a well-known singer and pupil of Johann Christian Bach; married James Billington, in 1783 (died around 1795); married Fellissent or Felican.

So enormous was Elizabeth Billington's reputation as a singer that for a time "a Billington" was a popular term for any great singer. Hers was a musical family. Her mother was a singer who studied with Johann Christian Bach, her father was an oboist and clarinet player, her brother played the violin, and Elizabeth played the piano as a child. Before she was 12, she composed two sets of piano sonatas and at 14 sang at a concert in Oxford. In 1783, she married James Billington, a singing teacher and double-bass player. After her marriage, the Billingtons left for Dublin where they performed at the Crow Street Theater. Billington was later engaged for a season at Covent Garden at £1,000, a large sum for the day, where she sang Rosetta in Arne's Love in a Village and had great success. She began to work with Mortellari to improve her technique, even traveling to Paris to study with Sacchini. After six years of singing opera, ballad opera, oratorios, and concerts in London and the provinces, Billington's voice was technically mature.

In 1794, Billington, her husband, and brother went to Naples where she gained international renown and performed as the heroine of a new opera, Inez di Castro , written for her by F. Bianchi. Her husband died not long after, but she and her brother soon set out on a triumphal tour of Italy's great opera houses. In Italy, she married a second time in 1799, but this marriage did not last, perhaps because she was ill treated, and she left her husband in 1801. When she returned to England the same year, Billington was in such demand that she sang at two theaters, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, on alternate nights. Her brother usually conducted the orchestra as she felt this ensured proper accompaniment of her cadenzas. Haydn described this serious and hardworking singer as "a great genius" and wrote "Arianna abbandonata" for her. Her voice had a wide range and her intonation was very accurate. Crowds converged to hear her sing until 1810 when ill health forced her to abandon her profession. In 1817, her second husband returned to London, and Billington decided to follow him back to Venice in the following year. She died shortly thereafter, on August 25, 1818, some said due to foul play. Though her death remains obscure, her fame as a great singer does not. A friend of Emma Hamilton 's, Elizabeth Billington was also much admired by the Prince of Wales, and Joshua Reynolds painted her as St. Cecilia .

suggested reading:

Earl of Mount-Edgcumbe. Musical Reminiscences. London, 1825.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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