William Billings

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Born: 7 October 1746

Died: 26 September 1800


William Billings was the best known American composer and musician of the eighteenth century, sometimes called the father of American choral music. He was born in Boston in 1746, and died there in 1800, aged 53. He wrote more than three hundred compositions, almost all of them settings of sacred texts, and almost all of them in four parts for a cappella singing. He was active as a singing-school master for over thirty years in Boston, and the first American composer to publish a book entirely of his own compositions.
Although influenced by British psalmodists (notably William Tans'ur and Aaron Williams), Billings developed his own styles, which ranged from simple settings of standard hymns to long and complex anthems. Many of his compositions are sung today; examples include David's Lamentation, Jordan, Africa, Easter Anthem, Kittery, and Rutland, to name a few. He wrote several patriotic songs and anthems, including Chester, Independence, and Lamentation over Boston.
In Sacred Harp singings alone, for the 22 years 1995-2016, David's Lamentation was sung 1,993 times, Africa 2,417, Jordan 1,573, and Easter Anthem 1,395 [1].

View the Wikipedia article on William Billings.

List of choral works

NOTE. New works added to this page should be automatically placed in the correct position below. Please add Listing by first line manually.


Many of these have two or more editions. See Listing by First Line below

1. Psalm-Tunes

2. Anthems

3. Canons

4. Secular Music



Settings of text by William Billings

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External websites:


  • Anderson, Gillian B. 1975. "Samuel the Priest Gave Up the Ghost" and the Temple of Minerva: Two Broadsides. Notes 31(3):493-516.
  • Barbour, J. Murray. 1960. The Church Music of William Billings. 167 pp. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
  • Brownson, Oliver, Editor. 1783. Select Harmony, Containing the Necessary Rules of Psalmody, Together With a Collection of Approved Psalm Tunes, Hymns and Anthems. Hartford, Connecticut, 100 pp. Further editions in 1784, 1785, and 1790. The 1784 edition contains the first publication of Kittery by William Billings.
  • Crawford, Richard, and David P. McKay. 1974. Music in Manuscript: A Massachusetts Tune-Book of 1782. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 84:45-64.
  • Crawford, Richard. 1993. William Billings (1746-1800) and American Psalmody: a Study of Musical Dissemination. Chapter 4, pp. 111-151 in The American Musical Landscape by Richard Crawford. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Fawcett-Yeske, Maxine. 1996. Stylistic Development in the Fuging Tunes of William Billings. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7(1):32-46.
  • Howe, Sondra W. 1996. William Billings: A Biographical Overview. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning 7(1): 6-9. http://www-usr.rider.edu/~vrme/
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1978. Letter to the Editor. Journal of the American Musicological Society 31(1):176-177.
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1981. The complete works of William Billings, Volume I. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 383 pp. [2]
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1982. William Billings's Music in Manuscript Copy and Some Notes on Variant Versions of His Pieces. Notes 39(2):316-345.
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1986. The complete works of William Billings, Volume III. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 399 pp. [3]
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1987. William Billings's 'Anthem for Easter': The Persistence of an Early American 'Hit'. Journal of the American Antiquarian Society, 105-128.
  • Kroeger, Karl, Editor. 1990. The complete works of William Billings, Volume IV. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 332 pp. [4]
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1991. Catalog of the Musical Works of William Billings. New York: Greenwood Press. 160 pp.
  • Kroeger, Karl. 1996. Two Unknown Billings Compositions in John Norman's "The Massachusetts Harmony" (1784). The Hymn 47(3):44-49.
  • Nathan, Hans, Editor. 1977. The complete works of William Billings, Volume II. Brunswick, Maine: American Musicological Society, 362 pp. [5]
  • Norman, John, Editor. 1784. The Massachusetts Harmony, Being a New Collection of Psalm Tunes, Fuges and Anthems. Boston, 101 pp.
  • Stickney, John. 1774. The Gentleman and Lady’s Musical Companion. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Daniel Bayley. Further editions in 1777 and 1783. The 1774 edition contains the first publication of Exeter by William Billings.


Works Composed by William Billings
Class 1770 1774 1778 1779 1781 1783 1786 1787 1790 1794 Total No. Here
Psalm-Tunes 116 1 36 30 10 1 24 1 2 30 251 211
Anthems 5 10 1 9 5 1 19 50 47
Canons 3 3 3
Secular Songs 2 2 2
Total 124 1 48 31 19 1 29 2 2 49 306
No. Here 88 1 47 29 19 1 28 2 2 46 263