Heralded as the first composer of Western-style Choral Music in America, William Billings (1746-1800) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Son of an elder William Billings and Elizabeth Clark, William was born into Boston’s working-class community. A center for trade, craftsmanship and burgeoning American intellectualism inspired by the Enlightenment, mid-eighteenth century Boston served as a critical link between the American Colonies and England. From his Father’s Cornhill (now Washington) Street mercantile, young William Billings would have been exposed to a range of cultures, ideas, and goods arriving on the docks of Boston Harbor just a few blocks away.
As a young man, Billings followed a traditional path for those born into the New England working class – attending a primary school and then apprenticing and learning a trade. William became a tanner, a rather grimey but important profession in colonial America. While Billings continued to work as a tanner throughout his adult life, his passion lay in music composition and singing schools. The trade supported Billings throughout his musical career, which began when he was just a boy.
New England was home to some of the earliest Western musical traditions in America, primarily grounded in the puritanical roots of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Music in the context of reformed protestantism consisted of psalters – a collection of psalms paired with a lesser number of tunes. By the mid-seventeenth century, New England Calvinists wanted an updated psalter, leading to the 1651 publication The Bay Psalm Book. The first book published in America, the psalter aimed to improve upon both the textual translation and ease of tunes from earlier books. While the initial emphasis was certainly more on the religious text and the tunes were simply the means of delivery, the tradition of performance led to a development in musical expectations and a growing interest in composition. To improve the quality of congregational choirs, singing schools were formed, helping to standardize a basic level of musical knowledge and initiating the need for additional tunebooks. William Billings began his own music education in this setting, and continued to operate within the sphere of singing schools as an adult.
In conjunction with his congregational singing school, Billings was surrounded by a world of secular song, martial tunes and a burgeoning concert presence in late-eighteenth century Boston. True to his focus on tunebooks, Billings published his first set of compositions in The New England Psalm-Singer, or American Chorister in 1770. The book was advertised in the Boston Gazette, and sold by numerous booksellers throughout the City. This publication is thought to be the first collection of music written entirely by an American, and is one of the earliest American treatises on music theory and music education.
Created for the context of singing schools and singing clubs, the contents of The New England Psalm-Singer bears little similarity to the works of contemporaneous European composers, such as Carl Friedrich Abel or Johann Christian Bach. Billings’ style holds a stronger resemblance to older traditions of religious psalmody, with limits in counterpoint and range. While seemingly contrary to the compositional rules of the high classical period, his application of sixteenth and seventeenth century traditions in late eighteenth century America gave the work of Billings a fresh sound – one we deem today as “distinctly American.”
The world of William Billings was also rife with Revolutionary ideals and conflict. Nineteen years old at the passing the Stamp Act, Billings had a front-row seat for the growing instability between England and the Colonies. The Boston Massacre occurred just months before the publication of The New England Psalm-Singer, perhaps further inspiring his Revolutionary ideals and motivating him to write music supporting the cause. One of Billings’ most famous tunes, Chester, was first included in his 1770 Psalm Singer, but reached high popularity during the Revolution after a 1778 revision in his subsequent Tunebook, The Singing Master’s Assistant. New verses celebrated the power of the Continental Army and the glory of the American cause: “Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too/With Prescot and Cornallis join’d/ Together plot our Overthrow/In one Infernal league combin’d.”
Despite the positive reception to select songs such as Chester and When Jesus Wept, Billings did not enjoy large-scale success during his lifetime, requiring him to continue working as a tanner. His antiquated compositional style was not favored by many and many churches believed his tunes to be too boisterous, leading to poverty in the post-Revolutionary years until his death in September of 1800. However, we can celebrate the work of William Billings today – tracing his impact from the reforms of American music education in the early nineteenth century to the widespread movement of shape note singing and the Sacred Harp throughout America’s backcountry in the mid-nineteenth century and beyond. Round out your 2020 celebrating one of America’s earliest composers!