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William Billings

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Born: 7 October 1746

Died: 26 September 1800

William Billings was the best known American composer and musician of the eighteenth century, sometimes called the father of American choral music. He was born in Boston in 1746, and died there in 1800, aged 53. He wrote more than three hundred compositions, almost all of them settings of sacred texts, and almost all of them in four parts for a cappella singing. He was active as a singing-school master for over thirty years in Boston, and the first American composer to publish a book entirely of his own compositions.
Although influenced by British psalmodists (notably William Tans'ur and Aaron Williams), Billings developed his own styles, which ranged from simple settings of standard hymns to long and complex anthems. Many of his compositions are sung today; examples include David's Lamentation, Jordan, Africa, Easter Anthem, Kittery, and Rutland, to name a few. He wrote several patriotic songs and anthems, including Chester, Independence, and Lamentation over Boston.
In Sacred Harp singings alone, for the 20 years 1995-2014, David's Lamentation was sung 1,773 times, Africa 2,124, Jordan 1,442, and Easter Anthem 1,251 [1].

View the Wikipedia article on William Billings.

List of choral works


Many of these have two or more editions. See Listing by First Line below

1. Psalm-tunes published in The New-England Psalm-Singer, 1770

2. Psalm-tunes first published in 1770, revised later

3. Psalm-tunes first published in The Singing-Master's Assistant, 1778

4. Psalm-tunes first published in Music In Miniature, 1779

5. Psalm-tunes first published in The Psalm-Singer's Amusement, 1781

6. Psalm-tune first published in Select Harmony, 1783

7. Psalm-tunes first published in Massachusetts Harmony, 1784

8. Psalm-tunes first published in The Suffolk Harmony, 1786

9. Psalm-tunes first published by the author 1787-1790

10. Psalm-tunes first published in The Continental Harmony, 1794

11. Anthems

12. Canons


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  • Billings, William. 1770. The New-England Psalm-Singer: Or, American Chorister. Boston: Edes and Gill. Preface, 10 pp.; Introduction, 22 pp.; Music and Index, 111 pp. [2]
  • Billings, William. 1778. The Singing Master's Assistant, Or Key to Practical Music. Boston: Drafer and Folsom. Introduction and Index, 22 pp.; Music, 104 pp. [3]
  • Billings, William. 1779. Music in Miniature, Containing a Collection of Psalm-Tunes of Various Metres. Boston: Author. 32 pp. [4]
  • Billings, William. 1781. The Psalm-Singer's Amusement. Boston: Author. 104 pp. [5]
  • Billings, William. 1786. The Suffolk Harmony. Boston: J. Norman. 56 pp. (Two eight-page separates bound in back). [6]
  • Billings, William. 1794. The Continental Harmony. Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews. 199 pp. [7]

External links


  • Barbour, J. Murray. 1960. The Church Music of William Billings. 167 pp. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
  • Brownson, Oliver, Editor. 1783. Select Harmony, Containing the Necessary Rules of Psalmody, Together With a Collection of Approved Psalm Tunes, Hymns and Anthems. Hartford, Connecticut, 100 pp.
  • Crawford, Richard. 1993. William Billings (1746-1800) and American Psalmody: a Study of Musical Dissemination. Chapter 4, pp. 111-151 in The American Musical Landscape by Richard Crawford. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Fawcett-Yeske, Maxine. 1996. Stylistic Development in the Fuging Tunes of William Billings. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7(1):32-46.
  • Howe, Sondra W. 1996. William Billings: A Biographical Overview. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7(1): 6-9. http://www-usr.rider.edu/~vrme/
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1981. The complete works of William Billings, Volume I. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 383 pp. [9]
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1986. The complete works of William Billings, Volume III. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 399 pp. [10]
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1987. William Billings's 'Anthem for Easter': The Persistence of an Early American 'Hit'. Journal of the American Antiquarian Society, 105-128.
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1990. The complete works of William Billings, Volume IV. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 332 pp. [11]
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1996. Two Unknown Billings Compositions in John Norman's "The Massachusetts Harmony" (1784). The Hymn 47(3):44-49.
  • Nathan, Hans, Editor. 1977. The complete works of William Billings, Volume II. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 362 pp. [12]
  • Norman, John, Editor. 1784. The Massachusetts Harmony, Being a New Collection of Psalm Tunes, Fuges and Anthems. Boston, 101 pp.