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Born in 1746
Inducted in 2001
Born in Boston in 1746, Billings had attended school only briefly before learning the tanner’s trade. As a musician, he seems to have been self-taught. By age twenty-three, he was teaching singing schools, an activity he pursued through much of his life. Patriot, composer, vivid personality, William Billings stands as an emblematic figure in American music history. When psalmodists and writers of his own time chose one man to exemplify their tradition, Billings was the natural choice. Billings wrote more than 340 compositions, virtually all of them settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied-four-part chorus—“treble” (soprano), “counter” (alto), tenor, and bass—with the melody in the tenor voice. Most were strophic settings of metrical psalms or hymns, including fifty-one “fuging tunes:” pieces including one or more sections of counterpoint involving text overlap among the voices. But more than any of his New England contemporaries, Billings was also drawn to longer works: through-composed anthems and set-pieces, of which he published fifty two in all. (His output includes four canons as well.) His voice parts kept the singers musically engaged while still following accepted harmonic practice. Billings strove to reconcile the claims of nature and art—of inspiration and technique. He created a substantial body of choral music, distinctly non-European in style; whose melodic idiom and skillful setting of words to music bear his personal stamp. Some of these pieces—Chester, the Lamentation Over Boston, Modern Music, the anthem “I am the Rose of Sharon,” and the canon “When Jesus Wept” among them—still reward performance today. Thus, William Billings stands today as both a talented musician from the past and a symbol—a prophet of “inferior excellence,” we might say—of the democratic roots that have given this nation’s musical life its unique flavor.