The publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770 was the making of William Billings’ reputation. Its 120 or so hymns, psalm-tunes, and anthems represent the first substantial corpus of music by an American composer, a fact that Billings provocatively used as a selling point for the book—the title trumpets its regionalism, the pieces are named primarily for local towns and landmarks, and the frontispiece (“Wake Ev’ry Breath,” illustrated with a scene of domestic singing) was engraved by colonial celebrity Paul Revere. It was the first wholly American music book in existence.
Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and lived there for his entire life. He attended Boston public schools until around 1760, when his father died; he then took up the tanner’s trade to help support the family. He had no formal music training, but sang in churches from an early age, and before long supplemented his income as a singing-master and teacher.
The New-England Psalm-Singer establishes, from the beginning, the Billings style: rhythmically vigorous, harmonically sturdy yet often texturally florid, and exhibiting a seemingly artless declamatory style. “Sudbury” is a good example—Billings emphasizes the eight-plus-six syllable asymmetry of the text, an imbalance that other composers might seek to smooth over. At the same time, the almost constant decoration of the otherwise stately harmonic rhythm produces a continually dancing surface that upholsters a solid frame.
Billings continued to advance in these directions, as shown in two selections from his fifth book, The Suffolk Harmony. “Baptism” sets a text by the Relly brothers, noted Christian poets of the time, of almost forbidding metrical complexity. Billings utilizes a host of methods in negotiating this thicket. He contrasts the location within the rhythm of accented syllables, he changes meter and tempo to point up the structure of the poem, and he slowly increases both the range and the activity of each voice part to bring about the dramatic climax. Similar techniques abound in “The Dying Christian To His Soul,” which also includes an almost operatic section in which the individual voice parts, unaccompanied, query each other as to the possible mortal nature of their symptoms.
1786, the year Billings published The Suffolk Harmony, was a depression year, and its effects caught Billings at a bad time; an accomplished man of letters as well, Billings had nevertheless been fired as editor of a new “Boston Magazine” after only one issue. The Suffolk Harmony sold poorly and Billings was forced to turn back to his previous trades to support his own and growing family. He became the Sealer of Leather for the City of Boston (judging and approving the quality of leather) as well as the city’s hogreeve, responsible for enforcing that hogs were “yoked and ringed” according to law, and assessing the damage caused by stray pigs. A concert for his benefit and the publication of his last book, The Continental Harmony, failed to revive his fortunes, and he died a pauper in 1800, a few months after completing his last piece (an elegy for George Washington, now lost). He was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common.
Billings was, in his time, a well-known figure, something of an American Beethoven in projecting an appearance of unkempt genius. Upon hearing of his death, the Reverend William Bentley, a Salem minister and casual acquaintance of Billings, remarked to his diary:
He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.
You can find a fair number of his works at the slowly recovering Choral Public Domain Library. He was born on October 7, which gives any choral directors out there six weeks to get a birthday concert together.