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William Billings

Biography

Born: October 7, 1746; Boston, MA   Died: September 26, 1800; Boston, MA  
William Billings was the first significant home-grown American composer. He was from a poor family, had little formal education, and was self-taught in music aside from some possible lessons from Boston choirmaster John Barry. In 1760 he apprenticed himself to a tanner and practiced that craft for much of his life. In 1769 he became a partner to Barry in teaching choral singing in Boston. In 1774 Billings taught for a while in Stoughton, MA, and Read more Providence, RI, but for the rest of his life worked in Boston. His interest in music distracted him from his tannery, causing him regular financial difficulties. At one point he was described as being "of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without an address, and with an uncommon negligence of person." Nevertheless, he got several teaching positions, which he carried out at various churches.

In 1770 he published a collection called The New England Psalm Singer. This was the first publication comprising American music exclusively, and was also the first by a single American composer. In it he introduced a genre that he did not invent but that would become almost exclusively associated with him: the "fuging tune," a canon-like vocal piece that does not follow the academic rules of a true fugue. (In the twentieth century Henry Cowell wrote numerous pieces and individual movements in the same form, as a tribute to Billings.) With typical immodesty, he described them as "twenty times as powerful as the old slow tunes."

Thus, he was surprised when the collection was attacked as being rather tame. His new collection The Singing Master's Assistant, (known popularly as "Billings' Best") was published in 1778 and became very popular. It included a number of strange, original ideas, including a piece called Jargon, with such odd dissonances that someone hung two cats by their tails on his shop's shingle in protest. Nevertheless, this volume became his most popular one, going through several editions. Part of the reason was that it contained several effective Revolutionary songs, including the march perennial Chester" and "Lamentation over Boston," with words by Samuel Adams.

However, his next four publications were less popular, and did not go into extra editions during his lifetime. This is even true of his finest collection, The Continental Harmony, which shows more variety and more use of larger forms. Most of his music is written for unaccompanied voices. He wrote only one piece with a separate organ part, an anthem that was performed at Boston's First Church as part of a celebration of the installation of its new organ. The Congregational Church, at which his compositions were aimed, had not used organs, and the issue of organ music in search was still very controversial among church leaders at the time. Billings himself left vague writings approving discreet use of an organ or a small gallery orchestra with his compositions. The instruments might have been intended to keep the singers on pitch; Billings was, in fact, the first choral conductor to use a pitch pipe to tune his chorus. Read less
Browse 1-25 of 62 Available Recordings
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  • 1.
    To Be American: A Musical Tribute To God & Country
    Label: Millennial Choirs & Orchestras   Catalog: 5638299206 Release Date: 07/01/2014   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Traditional,  Brett Stewart,  William Billings,  Patrick S. Gilmore  ... 
    Performer:  Robin Cecil,  Ryan Tilby,  Heather Stewart,  Brandon Stewart  ... 
    CD: $29.99
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  • 2.
    Chanticleer - How Sweet the Sound
    Label: Teldec   Catalog: 641038 Release Date: 01/28/2014   Number of Discs: 14
    Composer:  Giovanni Palestrina,  Ignacio Jerusalem,  Manuel de Zumaya,  Anonymous  ... 
    Performer:  Kevin Baum,  Douglas [Tenor Vocals] Wright,  Frank Albinder,  Christopher Fritzsche  ... 
    Conductor:  Joseph Jennings,  Ettore Stratta,  Frank Albinder,  Skip Sempé
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chanticleer,  Chanticleer Sinfonia,  Don Haas Trio  ... 
    CD: $68.99
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  • 3.
    Silent Night / Seraphic Fire
    Label: Seraphic Fire Media   Catalog: 10 Release Date: 11/19/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Franz Xaver Gruber,  John Jacob Niles,  William Smith,  Stephen Paulus  ... 
    Conductor:  Patrick Dupré Quigley
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seraphic Fire
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  • 4.
    Joy To The World: An American Christmas
    Label: Coro   Catalog: 16117 Release Date: 10/08/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Jacob Niles,  Morten Lauridsen,  Lowell Mason,  Richard Storrs Willis  ... 
    Performer:  Sonja DuToit Tengblad,  Thomas Armstrong,  Woodrow Bynum,  Stefan [Tenor (Vocal)] Reed
    Conductor:  Harry Christophers
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Handel & Haydn Society
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  • 5.
    Seraphic Fire
    Label: Seraphic Fire Media   Catalog: 11 Release Date: 05/28/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  William Billings,  Alvaro A. Bermudez,  Shawn Crouch,  Jake Runestad  ... 
    Performer:  Pedro Fernandez,  Charango] Alvaro A. [Guitar Bermudez,  Kathryn Mueller,  Derek Chester  ... 
    Conductor:  Patrick Dupré Quigley
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seraphic Fire
    CD: $17.99
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  • 6.
    That Eternal Day / Cantus
    Label: Cantus Recordings   Catalog: 5637728275 Release Date: 08/10/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Traditional,  William Walker,  R.F.M. Mann,  Tim Takach  ... 
    Performer:  Adam Reinwald,  Gary Ruschman,  Eric Ellingsen,  Tim Takach  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cantus
    CD: $23.99
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  • 7.
    Awake The Dawn
    Label: Da Chiesa   Catalog: 5637826842 Release Date: 10/25/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Tebay,  David L. Brunner,  John Rutter,  Charles Villiers Stanford  ... 
    Performer:  Deborah Thoreson,  Guang Yang,  Kristen Wiram,  James Clements  ... 
    CD: $26.99
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  • 8.
    Our Favorite Carols
    Label: Ingrooves   Catalog: 2246 Release Date: 10/24/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Traditional,  William Billings,  Charles Ives,  John Jacob Niles  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chanticleer
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  • 9.
    Rose Of Sharon / Joel Frederiksen, Ensemble Phoenix Munich
    Label: Harmonia Mundi   Catalog: 902085 Release Date: 05/10/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Benjamin Franklin White,  Henry Carey,  Philip Phile,  Anonymous  ... 
    Conductor:  Joel Frederiksen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Phoenix Munich
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    CD: $14.99
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  • 10.
    Label: Montana A Cappella Society   Catalog: 5637712605 Release Date: 12/14/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Traditional,  Tomás L. de Victoria,  William Billings,  William Walker  ... 
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  • 11.
    American Vocalist: Spirituals & Folk Hymns 1850-70 / Cohen, Boston Camerata
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 4692183 Release Date: 11/16/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  William Billings,  Daniel Read,  Traditional,  Joseph Stephenson  ... 
    Performer:  Elizabeth Anker
    Conductor:  Joel Cohen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Camerata,  Schola Cantorum Boston,  Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Chamber Chorus
    CD: $12.99
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  • 12.
    Liberty Tree: Early American Music 1776 - 1861 / Cohen, Boston Camerata
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 4692120 Release Date: 11/16/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Traditional,  William Billings,  Anonymous,  Moses Kimball  ... 
    Performer:  Timothy Leigh Evans,  Donald Wilkinson,  Joel Frederiksen,  Margaret Swanson  ... 
    Conductor:  Joel Cohen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Camerata,  Harvard University Choir
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  • 13.
    Trav'ling Home: American Spirituals 1770-1870 / Cohen, Boston Camerata
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 4692115 Release Date: 11/16/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Traditional,  William Billings,  Timothy Swan,  Jeremiah Ingalls  ... 
    Performer:  Anne Azéma,  Margaret Swanson,  Elizabeth Anker,  William Hite  ... 
    Conductor:  Joel Cohen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Boston,  Boston Camerata,  Brown University Chorus
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  • 14.
    The Cherry Tree / Anonymous 4
    Label: Harmonia Mundi   Catalog: 807453 Release Date: 09/14/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Anonymous,  Traditional,  William Knapp,  William Billings
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Anonymous 4
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  • 15.
    Stars & Stripes - Canadian Brass Salute America
    Label: Opening Day   Catalog: 7382 Release Date: 05/18/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Philip Sousa,  Traditional,  Samuel Augustus Ward,  George M. Cohan  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Canadian Brass
    CD: $17.98
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  • 16.
    Sing Noel / Elizabeth C. Patterson, Gloriae Dei Cantores
    Label: Gloriae Dei Cantores   Catalog: 105 Release Date: 02/16/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Bruce Stuart Saylor,  Traditional,  Alfred S. Burt,  Henry Walford Davies  ... 
    Performer:  David Chalmers,  James E. Jordan Jr.,  Carol Mastrodomenico,  Matthew Witter  ... 
    Conductor:  Elizabeth C. Patterson,  Richard J. Pugsley
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gloriæ Dei Artes Instrumental Ensemble,  Gloriae Dei Cantores,  Gloriae Dei Brass Ensemble  ... 
    On sale! $19.98
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  • 17.
    Simple Gifts / Fullington, The Tudor Choir
    Label: Gothic Records   Catalog: 49265 Release Date: 04/14/2009   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Joseph Brackett,  Hammond, Thomas, Jr.,  Susanna Brady,  Traditional  ... 
    Conductor:  Doug Fullington
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tudor Choir
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  • 18.
    Label: Jubilate   Catalog: 5637351216 Release Date: 01/06/2009   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Anonymous,  R. Nathaniel Dett,  Naomi Shihab Nye,  Pavel Chesnokov  ... 
    Performer:  Milt McBride,  nancy Fitzgerald,  Jim Dixon,  Ann Paradise  ... 
    CD: $19.99
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  • 19.
    And Glory Shone Around - Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony
    Label: Rose Ensemble   Catalog: 9 Release Date: 12/24/2008   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Bitterman,  Traditional,  Anonymous,  John Playford  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rose Ensemble
    On sale! $19.98
    CD: $16.99
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  • 20.
    An American Christmas / Joel Cohen, Boston Camerata
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 516241 Release Date: 11/25/2008   Number of Discs: 3
    Composer:  Traditional,  William Billings,  Patsy Williamson,  John Jacob Niles  ... 
    Performer:  Anne Azéma,  William Hite,  Christopher Kale,  Daniel McCabe  ... 
    Conductor:  Frederick Jodry,  Joel Cohen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Camerata,  Schola Cantorum Boston,  Brown University Chorus
    Recommendation
    On sale! $19.99
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  • 21.
    Northwest Chamber Chorus Live! 40th Anniversary Edition
    Label: Northwest Chamber Chorus   Catalog: 5637412546 Release Date: 12/04/2007   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Cesar Alejandro Carrillo,  Johannes Brahms,  Johann Sebastian Bach,  Gabriel Fauré  ... 
    Performer:  Lauren Sandven,  Valerie Shields,  Kevin Johnson,  Sheila Bristow  ... 
    Conductor:  Judy Filibeck,  Joan Catoni Conlon,  Steven M. Demorest,  Robert Scandrett  ... 
    CD: $33.99
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  • 22.
    Christmas With The Robert Shaw Chorale
    Label: Rca   Catalog: 1217 Release Date: 11/13/2007   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Traditional,  Tomás Luis de Victoria,  William Billings,  Guillaume Costeley  ... 
    Performer:  Jon Humphrey,  Florence Kopleff,  Rodney Hansen,  Sara Mae Endich  ... 
    Conductor:  Robert Shaw
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Robert Shaw Chorale
    On sale! $29.98
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  • 23.
    Best Carols 100
    Label: Emi Classics   Catalog: 10371 Release Date: 11/06/2007   Number of Discs: 6
    Composer:  Traditional,  William James Kirkpatrick,  Henry Walford Davies,  Patrick Hadley  ... 
    Performer:  Francis Grier,  Jeremy Blandford,  Barbara Hendricks,  Hermann Prey  ... 
    Conductor:  Sir Philip Ledger,  Sir David Willcocks,  John Rutter,  Andrew Parrott  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cambridge King's College Choir,  Clare College Choir,  Clare College Orchestra  ... 
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    MP3:  $34.99 Add MP3 to Cart

  • 24.
    Christmas Carols / Parrott, Taverner Consort
    Label: Virgin Classics   Catalog: 3680 Release Date: 11/06/2007   Number of Discs: 4
    Composer:  Michael Praetorius,  Anonymous,  Lucas Osiander,  Mateo Flecha  ... 
    Performer:  Emily van Evera,  Leigh Nixon,  Nicholas Robertson,  Stephen Charlesworth  ... 
    Conductor:  Andrew Parrott
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Taverner Players,  Taverner Choir,  Taverner Consort
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    CD: $13.99
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  • 25.
    An American Journey / Michael Jaffee, The Waverly Consort
    Label: Emi Classics   Catalog: 55522 Release Date: 08/20/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  William Billings,  William Walker,  Anonymous,  Andrew Law  ... 
    Performer:  Michael Jaffee,  Kay Jaffee,  Rosamund Morley,  Matt Glaser  ... 
    Conductor:  Michael Jaffee
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Waverly Consort
    ArkivCD $16.99
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