William Billings: Biography & Music

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Even though he had little musical training, William Billings (1746-1800) created nearly 350 compositions. Discover how this nearly forgotten individual came to be considered the first important American composer.


In 1976, the United States celebrated its 200th birthday. That significant milestone was an opportunity for many historians to explore our early musical heritage. As a result, the works of one nearly forgotten composer, William Billings, were rediscovered and promoted. In doing so, many scholars came to believe that Billings was the first important American composer.

Who was William Billings?

William Billings lived and worked in and around Boston, Massachusetts. He was a tanner by trade. He received some training in local singing schools and went on to teach singing, in several Boston churches, as well as to compose choral music. His life coincided with the Colonial era in American history and he was friends with Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Billings was 13 when his father died and 17 when his mother died. He is known to have been disfigured and was somewhat unattractive. Apparently, he was blind in one eye and had one leg shorter than the other, among other problems. He was married and had nine children. Billings died penniless at age 53. There are no known images of William Billings. Shown below is an unconfirmed portrait of William Billings.

Unconfirmed portrait of William Billings

Musical Contributions

The bulk of his nearly 350 compositions were published in six collections. The second of these books, Singing Master's Assistant (1778), was extremely popular and received four printings. Some of his works reflect events surrounding the Revolutionary War. Most of his pieces are hymns, psalm-tunes and anthems based on or inspired by biblical texts. A few selections display a clever sense of humor.

Some of Billings' better known sacred pieces include 'When Jesus Wept', 'Wake Every Breath', 'David's Lamentation', 'I Am the Rose of Sharon', 'Kittery' (a setting of 'The Lord's Prayer'), the Christmas hymns 'Judea' (or 'A Virgin Unspotted') and 'Shiloh' (or 'The Shepherd's Carol'), and the Easter anthem 'The Lord Is Risen Indeed'.

Wake Every Breath

'When Jesus Wept' and 'Wake Every Breath' are examples of a round or canon. Such pieces were a regular form of social relaxation. Note how the music for 'Wake Every Breath' is printed in a circle. It is designed to be sung by two to six voices or groups of voices. Rather than reading the music in typical fashion from left to right, the singers would need to continuously turn the page in a circular manner in order to perform the notes and words.

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