American Music Preservation.com
William Billings - Father of American Choral Music
Born: Boston, Massachusetts, October 7, 1746
Died: Boston, Massachusetts. September 28, 1800
There is an image circulating on the Internet which claims to be a portrait of William Billings. There is no known portrait of Billings.
The portrait shown here and on other sites is actually a portrait of
19th century hymn writer, Lowell Mason.
Billings composed only compositions for chorus. His best known tune is titled, "Chester" (first published in 1770; with additional stanzas published in 1778). It was the first popular war song composed by a native born citizen. It was sung in the first episode of the acclaimed HBO television series, JOHN ADAMS.
Here is the first stanza:
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.
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.
Other Billings tunes include: "David's Lamentation" (1778), "Majesty" (1778), "Modern Music" (1781); and "Anthem for Thanksgiving" (1794). 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).
Married Lucy Swan in Stoughton, Massachusetts
on July 26, 1774.
Lucy had been a pupil in the Billings singing school taught in Stoughton in 1774, which consisted of 49 pupils [not 48, as written in most books].
Lucy was born in Stoughton in 1751 and died in Boston in 1795.
Rachel (born: 1775/ died: 1776)
Adams Billings (born: 1777)
Elizabeth Adams (born: 1779)
Lucy (twins, born: 1781/
William died: 1781, Lucy died: 1784)
William (born: 1786/ died: 1858)
Peggy Dawes (born: 1788/ died:
Lucy Billings (born: 1792/ died: 1869)
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 music by Billings and It is ironic that Billings was remembered not by a Boston musician's organization but by an organist chapter from Washington. D.C.
Also on November 7, 1986, Roger Hall, 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 hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema. There were several Billings tunes played and a portion of the interview is available on this CD, The Best of William Billings.
Billings Bicentennial in Boston:
It was on a rain soaked Tuesday -- mourning for a great neglected American composer? There was a day and evening "sing" held
at King's Chapel (built in 1749) at the corner of Tremont and School Streets
in Boston. The date was 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
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.
Also Roger Hall represented the Old Stoughton Musical Society and led
two Billings tunes ("Stoughton" and "Majesty") plus an original canon titled, "Come
Let Us Sing," which Roger had composed on words from the last Billings
tunebook of 1794. All three of these pieces led by Roger Hall are
included in his monograph titled, MAJESTY, about William Billings and The Stoughton Musical Society.
Four years earlier, in 1996, Roger Hall wrote a newspaper article about the 250th anniversary of William Billings' birth, which took place at the Central Burying Ground on Boston Common. The headline for the article read: "William Billings' songs to be remembered."
The CD, Best of William Billings, is available in the
American Vocal Music Series
A Dedication Concert (1981)
Musick in Old Boston (1980)