Billings, William

Billings, William,

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Billings, William

(1746–1800) composer; born in Boston, Mass. Originally a tanner, he studied music on his own and became one of the earliest professional musicians in the Colonies. After publishing his first collection of church music, the New England Psalm Singer of 1770 (engraved by Paul Revere), he pursued in Boston a career of composing, reforming church music, and starting musical ensembles, all endeavors that considerably improved New England musical life. His anthems were primitive in technique but vigorous and individual in sound. He founded the continent's first singing class in Stoughton, Mass., (1774) and the first church choir as well. His "Chester," with its text "Let tyrants shake their iron rod… New England's God forever reigns," became a favorite of Revolutionary troops and remains his best-known work. Despite his prominence, he was never able to make an adequate living and he died in abject poverty.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.