American Music

The Continetnal Harmony - William Billings,
America's first major composer

This LP album performed by The Gregg Smith Singers
was named a Record of the Year in 1969
by Stereo Review magazine


William Billings - Father of American Choral Music

By Roger Hall, Musicologist

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 some other person, possibly hymn writer, Lowell Mason.


Musical Life of William Billings

Why is this first major American composer not as well known as other famous Bostonians, 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 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, including Sacred Harp singing.

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 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.

This version has been performed for many years by the Old Stoughton Musical Society, the oldest surviving choral society in the U.S.A.

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).

His Wife:

Billings married Lucy Swan in Stoughton, Massachusetts on July 26, 1774. Lucy had been a pupil in the Billings singing school taught in Stoughtonin 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.

Children of Lucy and William Billings: 

Rachel (born: 1775/ died: 1776)

Abigail Adams Billings (born: 1777)

Elizabeth Adams (born: 1779)

William and Lucy (twins, born: 1781/ William died,1781 Lucy died, 1784)

Sarah (born: 1783)

William (born: 1786/ died: 1858)

Peggy Dawes (born: 1788/ died: 1862)

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 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 Roger had composed on words from the last Billings tunebook of 1794.   All three of these pieces are included in his monograph about William Billings and The Stoughton Musical Society, with an accurate genelogy of the William Billings family and references to his music performed by the Stoughton Musical Society:

William Billings and The Stoughton Musical Society


The CD, "Best of William Billings," is available in the

American Music Recordings Collection (AMRC)

Also available is this CD:

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 a CD of this cantata, go to:

American Music Recordings Collection


See also

"DEDICATION" - Singing in Stoughton, 1762-1987