William Billings - Father of American Choral Music

Born:  Boston, Massachusetts, 7 October 1746
Died:  Boston, Massachusetts. 28 September 1800

Important Correction!

There is an image circulating on the Internet which claims to be a portrait of William Billings. There is no known portrait of Billings. There is a crude print on the title page of the first Billings collection from 1770 by Boston patriot and engraver, Paul Revere, which has been claimed by some scholars to show Billings leading a singing session. But the portrait shown here is actually a portrait of the 19th century American hymn writer, Lowell Mason.


Musical Life of William Billings

Why is this first major American composer not as well known as other famous Bostonians, like Paul Revere and Sam Adams? Doesn't he deserve to be better known? Are present day performances appropriate re-creations of the Billings music?

The answer to the first question is he was primarily a singing teacher and composer and not a politician or demonstrator so not remembered by historians. But Billings did know Sam Adams and Paul Revere designed the frontispiece illustration for the first Billings music collection, The New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770.

The second question may be answered with one word -- Yes! Why? The main reason is that his music was among the most respected in his time and can still move us today.

And to answer the third question -- Yes and No. Some performances strive to be as close as possible to the Billings singing style -- an emphasis on the tenor (main melody) and bass voices. But concerning tempo, the answer would be -- No. Most of the recorded performances are much faster than from the era of Billings. This might be because there is too much emphasis on speed singing among many choruses today, especially Sacred Harp singing. The performances during the time of Billings was much slower and more contemplative.

A bit of advice: slow down and savor the beauty of these tunes!

Billings was the best known and proabbly the most prolific composer in 18th century America.

He composed over 100 pieces for chorus published in six collections between 1770 and 1794. The music includes: psalm tunes, hymns, anthems and set pieces. His best known tune is titled, CHESTER (first published in 1770; with additional stanzas in 1778, and a new text not by him in 1786) -- it was sung in the first episode of the acclaimed HBO television series, JOHN ADAMS.

Here is two stanzas of the 1778 version:

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 forever reigns.

The foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise
Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth
And Gen'rals yield to beardless boys.

Michael Medved, is one of the few historians to single out the importance of this Billings war song in his time and in our time as well. This is what he wrote in his admirable book, The American Miracle (page 70):

This brief song unforgettably captures the unique combination of warlike determination and unshakeable faith that characterized most of the American fighters and inspired twentieith-century composer William Schumaan to craft his 1956 concert-piece New England Triptych. The last section of the work, based on "Chester," brilliantly portrays the transition from church-like reverence to inexorable march, with "maartial noise" and then to explosive amazement, overwhelming gratitude, and sheet delight at victory.


Musicologist Richard Crawford in The Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody (1984) wrote the following about this important patriotic song:

Set originally to a defiant patriotic text, CHESTER is remembered as an emblem of Americans' resistance of British domination before and during the War of Independence...Its current status as a recognizable piece of early Americana owes much to its fiery original text and to its appearance in William Schuman's New England Triptych (1956), composed for orchestra and for band the next year. Familiar to both choral directors and bandmasters, CHESTER today is more likely to be heard at a choral concert or a football halftime show than to be sung in public worship.

In 1786, the text by Billings was replaced with another text by Philip Doddridge:

Let the high heavens your songs invite,
Those spacious fields of brilliant light,
Where sun and moon and planets roll,
And stars that glow from pole to pole.

This version has been performed for many years by the
Old Stoughton Musical Society.

Other well regarded Billings tunes include:

MAJESTY (1778)

These and 24 other tunes are included in the largest collection with Billings tunes published in the 19th century:
The Stoughton Musical Society's
Centennial Collection of Sacred Music
(Boston, 1878/ Reprint, DaCapo Press, 1980).


-- Compiled by Roger Hall, Musicologist


Memorial Plaque in Boston:

This plaque was placed on Tremont Street in Boston and reads:

One of Americas's earliest native born (Boston) composers who greatly enhanced a musical awareness within the colonies, by respected tradition, his final resting place is believed to be an unmarked grave within this area of the Common.

Presented on the occasion of America's Bicentennial and in conjunction with the 1976 National Convention of the AMERICAN GUILD OF ORGANISTS by the District of Columbia Chapter.

The presentation ceremony took place in 1976 at The Common and included the singing of the best known piece by Billings and the most popular war song composed by a native born citizen, CHESTER. It is ironic that Billings was remembered not by a Boston musician's organization but by an organist chapter from Washington. D.C.

On November 7, 1986 (exactly 200 years after it was organized), Roger Hall, Vice-President and Bicentennial Chairman of the Old Stoughton Musical Society, was a guest along with William Billings biographer, David McKay, on the popular classical radio program, "Morning Pro Musica," on WGBH-FM in Boston and hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema. There were several Billings tunes played and a portion of this radio program is available on this AMRC CD, Best of William Billings.

Ten years later, in 1996, Roger Hall wrote a newspaper article about the 250th anniversary of William Billings' birth. The headline for the article read:
"William Billings's songs to be remembered." The article was about Billings in Stoughton and the "sing" held in Boston.

Billings Bicentennial in Boston:

It was on a rain soaked Tuesday -- a day of mourning for a unfairly neglected American composer?

On that day and evening a "sing" was held at King's Chapel (built in 1749) at the corner of Tremont and School Streets in Boston.  It was held on September 26, the actual date when Billings died in 1800.    

In observance of the 200th anniversary of his death, an exuberant chorus from points far and wide, including England, sang selected hymns and anthems of William Billings.  The singing was organized by Billings 2000 (Sheila Beardslee Bosworth, King's Chapel Tuesday Recitals; Gina Balestracci and Roland Hutchinson from Garden State Sacred Harp Singers).  A large volume of music was prepared by Roland Hutchinson titled:  "William Billings 2000 - The book of his bicentennial commemoration at Boston."

In typical Sacred Harp fashion, various singers offered to lead the individual Billings pieces. Neely Bruce came with his group of Sacred Harp singers from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Roger Hall, a composer and former conductor of the
Old Stoughton Musical Society, led two Billings tunes (STOUGHTON and MAJESTY), plus an original canon titled, "Come Let Us Sing," which Hall had composed on words from the last Billings tunebook of 1794. All three tunes are included in this monograph, along with a Billings geneology and historical information about the
Billings connection to the oldest surviving musical society, organized in 1786, and still in exxistence. 



New Revised Edition!

The "MAJESTY" monograph is available on a CD-ROM for musicians, researchers and historians. It includes a detailed Billings familiy geneology, an image gallery, and over 40 music tracks including a new edition of a Billings tune in its First Performance by the Old Stoughton Musical Society:


Also available on this disc with a combined chorus from
two Lutheran churches in Massachusetts, conducted by Roger Hall:

The Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord,
Music by William Billings,
Compiled and Edited with Narration
by Leonard Van Camp.

This cantata features Billings tunes in the two sections:


To order this computer disc -- click here


See also this computer disc about a town
where William Billings taught a singing school in 1774:

"DEDICATION" - Singing in Stoughton, 1762-1992


This page is copyright by PineTree Productions, 2010