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William Billings

Billings, William, 1746–1800, American hymn composer, b. Boston. A tanner by trade, he was one of the earliest American-born composers. He wrote popular hymns and sacred choruses of great vitality using simple imitative counterpoint—hence their designation as "fuguing tunes." He often wrote his own texts, breaking with the colonial New England tradition of using psalm verses as texts for hymns. His self-reliance and lack of musical training made him relatively independent of European musical fashions. As a singing master, he introduced the use of both pitch pipe and cello to improve the intonation of church choirs. A singing class he organized in 1774 became in 1786 the Stoughton Musical Society. During the American Revolution he wrote patriotic words to his best-known hymn, "Chester," beginning: "Let tyrants shake their iron rods,/And Slav'ry clank her galling chains." His songbooks include The New England Psalm Singer (1770), The Singing Master's Assistant (1778), and The Continental Harmony (1794).

See biography by D. McKay and R. Crawford (1974); M. Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings (1960, repr. 1972); K. Kroger, William Billing's Anthem for Easter (1987).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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