William Billings (October 7, 1746 - September 26, 1800), American choral composer, is regarded as the father of American choral music and hymnody. Originally a tanner by trade, and lacking formal training in music, Billings created what is now recognized as a uniquely American style.
Billings wrote for one and only one combination of musical forces: the four-part chorus, singing a cappella. His many hymns and anthems were published in large collections of his work, as follows:
The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770)
The Singing Master's Assistant (1778)
Music in Miniature (1779)
The Psalm-Singer's Amusement (1781)
The Suffolk Harmony (1786)
The Continental Harmony (1794)
Sometimes Billings would revise and improve a song, including the new version in his next volume.
Billings's music can be at times forceful and stirring, as in his patriotic song Chester; ecstatic, as in his hymn Africa; or elaborate and celebratory, as in his "Easter Anthem". The latter sounds rather like a miniature Handelian chorus, sung a cappella. As might be expected from a composer who was very close to his roots in folk music, Billings's music shows a striking purity.
Billings often wrote the lyrics for his own compositions. Like the notes, the words are occasionally awkward but always forceful and vivid.
Billings wrote long prefaces to his works in which he explained (often in an endearingly eccentric prose style) the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed. His writings reflect his extensive experience as a singing master, and often include advice that would wisely be heeded by choral singers today.
Billings's work was very popular in its heyday, but it failed to last out the composer's lifetime, and he died in poverty.
The Stoughton Musical Society, formed by former students of Billings, has carried on his tradition for over 200 years. As printed in shape notes, Billings's work has also survived in the musical tradition of the Sacred Harp, where his songs continue to be highly favored by many singers.
The modern American composer William Schuman featured Billings's American Revolutionary War anthem Chester in his composition New England Triptych.