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 William Billings

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William Billings

  • Birth 7 Oct 1746 Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
  • Death 29 Sep 1800 Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
  • Burial Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
  • Memorial ID 6686735

Religious Choral Composer. He is considered by many to be the foremost representative of early American music and created a unique style with his hymns and anthems. He was blind in one eye with a withered arm and one leg shorter than the other. When he was only 14, his father died and he was forced to discontinue his formal schooling and he became a tanner by trade. He was self-trained in music, having never received any formal musical education. Nearly all of his works were written for a four-part chorus, singing a cappella (without musical instruments). The majority of the texts that he used for his music came from the poetry of the English hymn writer and theologian Isaac Watts; only a small number of his compositions did he write the words. In spite of his physical handicaps, he became a very successful singing master, teaching at the prestigious churches in Boston. He was friends with American Revolution patriots Samuel Adams as well as Paul Revere, who engraved his first songbook. His work was very popular but his musical career was hampered by the primitive state of the copyright laws in America at the time, resulting in the favorite among his tunes having been widely reprinted in other people's hymnals without him receiving any royalties. His music was published in the songbooks "The New England Psalm-Singer" (1770), which was the first collection of music entirely by an American, "The Singing Master's Assistant" (1778), "Music in Miniature" (1779), "The Psalm-Singer's Amusement" (1781), "The Suffolk Harmony" (1786), and "The Continental Harmony" (1794). His most popular tunes included "When Jesus Wept" (sung as a round), "David's Lamentation," "Easter Anthem," "The Lord Is Ris'n Indeed," and "Chester," which was written to his own patriotic text and was unofficially the national anthem of the American Revolution. He also wrote several Christmas carols, including "Judea" and "Shiloh". His fortunes declined with the changing of the public's musical taste and his last songbook was published as a project of his friends in an effort to help support him. He died in poverty at the age of 53 and his music was almost completely forgotten. However, some his works remained popular for a time in rural New England and some appeared in shape note hymnals in the rural South, as part of the Sacred Harp singing tradition which became popular in the mid-1800s. In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Cinnamonntoast4
  • Added: 14 Aug 2002
  • Find A Grave Memorial 6686735
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for William Billings (7 Oct 1746–29 Sep 1800), Find A Grave Memorial no. 6686735, citing Central Burying Ground, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .