William Billings

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William Billings (born October 7, 1746 in Boston , † September 26, 1800 ibid) was an American composer of choral music .

Billings is one of the few composers of his time who did not come from Europe, but were born in North America. He spent his entire life in Boston at the time of the American Revolution .

The autodidact dedicated himself to the renewal of church singing. He is therefore regarded as the "father of American choral music" and church singing . He has authored a number of church hymn books including The New England Psalm Singer , The Singing Master's Assistant, and The Psalm Singer's Amusement .

Billings had originally learned the craft of tanning , but received no formal training in music . Nevertheless, he managed to create a musical style that can be considered genuinely American. His most popular composition was Chester , which was considered the unofficial national anthem of the United States until the introduction of the Star-Spangled Banner in 1931 .

“He had [only] one eye, a deformed arm, and a harsh voice; he was lame in one leg; and he was addicted to snuff. ”He was married with six children and died in poverty. His funeral was announced in the Columbian Centinel as follows: “Died- Mr. William Billings, the celebrated music composer. His funeral will be tomorrow at 4 o'clock, PM from the house of Mrs. Amos Penniman, in Chamber-street, West-Boston. "


Billings' music was quite popular in his time, but his fame declined sharply after his death. His professional success was also severely hampered by the primitive state of copyright law in the United States (see: US-American copyright law ) at the time. When the laws were later tightened, this was of little use to Billings, as the most popular of his songs had already been published in various hymn books and were therefore already in the public domain.

As the public's musical tastes changed, Billings' commercial success as a composer declined even further. His last hymn book, The Continental Harmony , was published as a project of his friends, who thereby supported the respected but no longer popular composer. His temporary job as a street sweeper in Boston probably served a similar purpose.

Billings died of poverty at the age of 53, and his music was almost completely ignored by mainstream American music for a considerable period thereafter. However, his compositions remained popular for a long time in rural New England , where recent trends in sacred music did not prevail. In addition, some of his songs spread to the south and west of the United States, where they appeared in Shape Notes hymn books. As a result, they took root in the rural areas of the southern states and became part of the sacred harp singing tradition .

A revival of Billings' music took place in the later 20th century and an extensive scholarly edition of his oeuvre was published. Today his works are sung again frequently by American choirs, especially groups specializing in early music . In addition, the resurgent popularity of the Sacred Harp has introduced more people to Billings' music: some of his compositions are among the more frequently sung works of the Sacred Harp canon.

The modern American composer William Schuman used Chester , Billings' hymn from the American Revolution, and two other hymns by Billings in his composition New England Triptych .

William Billings was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Father of American Choral Music
  2. ^ Charles L. Gary, Michael L. Mark: A History of American Music Education . 3. Edition. Rowman & Littlefield Education, Lanham 2007, ISBN 978-1-57886-523-9 .
  3. ^ Hans Nathan: William Billings. Data and Documents . Information Coordinators, Detroit (Michigan) 1976, ISBN 0-911772-67-7 .
  4. ^ Karl Kroeger (ed.): The Complete Works of William Billings . tape 1-4 . American Musicological Society, Boston 1990 ( amsmusicology.org ).
  5. The most popular songs of the Sacred Harp canon , including by Billings: Africa , Bear Creek, etc. a.
  6. ^ William Billings in the Songwriters Hall of Fame