MUSIC IN BOSTON, 1750–1770

THE Boston into which William Billings was born on October 7, 1746, was a busy, thriving seaport town of over 15,000 inhabitants. It was the largest city in the British American colonies, and the center of commerce and trade for one of the colonies’ most populous areas. Because of its importance as a commercial center, it attracted a large number of merchants, traders, craftsmen, and public officials. The proximity of Harvard College, across the Charles River in Cambridge, added an intellectual aura to Boston’s reputation.

However, in spite of its position as a commercial and intellectual center, Boston’s Puritan origins still weighed heavily upon public activities. Although the Puritan oligarchy of the seventeenth century had passed into history, the clergy still exerted an important and often decisive influence on the affairs of the town.

Like many towns of its size, Boston was stratified socially into gentry, artisans, laborers, and the poor. The gentry consisted of public officials and military officers, most of whom had been sent by the British Crown to supervise and protect royal prerogatives, and well-to-do merchants, lawyers, physicians, and other gentlemen of the town. Many of these men had come from England and were accustomed to English social amenities. They had never experienced the rigors of a frontier life, nor were they required to do so in Boston in 1750. Thus there existed a range of social and entertainment activities similar to those of an English provincial town of that day, but influenced by the strong, ever-present shadow of the clergy. These activities included dinner parties, club meetings, balls and dancing, gaming, and concerts.1 Many events were carried on in private and are known today only because they were mentioned in the journals and diaries of the men and women who participated.

Boston probably enjoyed a musical life significantly greater than the public record shows, although we must take care not to overextend that record. There was a building on Queen Street called the “Concert Hall” at which, during the 1750s and 1760s, public concerts as well as balls, dances, and other activities were held. Although we know little about the entrepreneurs, performers, or the music performed at these concerts, they occur with sufficient frequency and are advertised so as to suggest that a regular subscription series existed, although none was mentioned directly in the press.2 We know from the diary of John Rowe, a well-to-do Boston merchant of that time, that many private entertainments were held, and these often included music.3 The presence among the military of at least two regimental bands would have provided musicians for both public functions and private amusements.4 We may also suppose that young men arriving from England brought with them the latest ballads, popular songs, catches, and glees, and that these were sung at the taverns, in the club meetings, and in the private homes of the gentry. Thus one may posit a rather substantial secular musical activity in mid-eighteenth-century Boston which only occasionally left its mark upon the public record.

Boston’s reputation as a center of sacred music is well known, although again the public record can only suggest the extent of the activity. One can claim that the practice of sacred music was widespread, but there is no reason to believe that music-making in Boston churches was of a high artistic calibre. The principal churches were Congregational, and reformed Calvinists had traditionally opposed instrumental, polyphonic choral, or florid solo vocal music in public worship. Only the singing of Psalms in verse by the entire congregation was an authorized musical part of worship services. Prejudice against harmonized choral music weakened somewhat during the mid-eighteenth century, and choirs of singers appeared in many churches. Originally designed as a group of experienced singers to lead and support congregational singing, the choir on special occasions was sometimes permitted to sing an anthem before or after the service.5 Opposition to instrumental and solo vocal music continued into the nineteenth century in most Congregational churches.

In the several Anglican churches in Boston the musical situation seems to have been different. No prejudice against either choral or instrumental music existed there, and from what the meagre record reveals, both were found in the services. Organs were installed in Anglican churches and trained musicians imported from England to play them and to direct the church music.6 However, at mid-century there is little evidence to suggest that music in Boston’s Anglican churches was of high artistic quality or any better performed than the music of similar churches in English provincial towns. Temperley has shown that, although musical performance in the English parish churches of the eighteenth century varied greatly from place to place, it rarely reached a level that would satisfy a trained musician or discriminating amateur.7

Both the Congregational and Anglican churches in Boston drew their choir members from a common source: the singing school. This institution grew out of the “regular singing” controversy of the 1720s, and was a firmly established tradition in New England by mid-century.8 Under the sponsorship of a congregation, a group of parishioners, or the students themselves, the singing school met periodically during several months for instruction in the rudiments of musical notation and elementary voice production, and perhaps in some places to learn to sing psalm-tunes in parts. Some singing masters were trained musicians, but often they were merely residents of the town or members of the congregation who could read musical notation and had some experience in singing.9 After singing-school instruction the students were expected to join the church choir and support congregational singing.10 Some of the more advanced singers from the singing school and choir may have banded together into informal singing societies which met regularly for recreational psalm-singing.11

William Billings was a product of this musical milieu. He grew up in a provincial town of moderate size with a musical life that offered a wide range of musical experiences. He could hear secular songs, sacred and secular choir music, military music, dance tunes, and also perhaps even vocal and instrumental music in the Concert Hall.12 He undoubtedly gained a good part of his early musical education at the singing school and may, indeed, have been one of the “Tansur Singers” as suggested by McKay and Crawford.13 These diverse influences coalesced with a personality of boundless energy, optimism, and enthusiasm to produce William Billings, one of the most remarkable of all American musicians.

Billings now holds a pre-eminent position in the history of eighteenth-century American music, a reputation that seems fully justified. Today he appears to be the epitome of the eighteenth-century Yankee, ebullient, self-confident, and self-reliant. His music is held in high esteem as a prime species of American folk-art. However, his worth was not always so highly regarded. During the nineteenth century his name was anathema to the cultured church-music composers in the United States. His music was considered crude and untutored for its ignorance of the harmonic precepts of eighteenth-century art music, and his spirited tunes and anthems were thought inappropriate for performance in the church. Even in his own day, after an initial period of success in the 1770s and 1780s, he saw his fortunes decline in the 1790s as a reform movement in psalmody gained momentum which, during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, all but expurgated the works of Billings and his American contemporaries from New-England tunebooks. While some of his hymn-tunes and anthems enjoyed a wide and enduring popularity, Billings died in 1800 at the age of fifty-four in straitened financial circumstances.14

The basic facts of his life and work are well known, presented in a recent biographical study,15 and need be mentioned here only so far as they pertain to The New-England Psalm-Singer. Born in 1746 to William Billings, a Boston shopkeeper, and his wife, Elizabeth (Clark) Billings, William Billings grew up in Boston during a time of political and religious turmoil. Revolutionary ideas challenged the traditional political and religious order that had existed for nearly a century, and these had their effect on the mind of the young Billings.16 Although not privileged by his economic status to a higher education, he undoubtedly attended common school. It also seems likely that Billings gained most of his learning through an inquiring mind, a literary and musical curiosity, and acquaintance with many of the intellectuals of late eighteenth-century Boston. His formal education probably ended with the death of his father in 1760. He was apprenticed to a tanner, a trade which he learned and worked at off and on during the rest of his life.

We know little about Billings’s musical education. His only formal musical training is likely to have come in the singing school. He may also have received encouragement and some instruction in music from Josiah Flagg, a Boston musician, concert organizer, and tunebook compiler, who appears to have had a close connection with The New-England Psalm-Singer.17 Billings probably acquired most of his theoretical knowledge of music by reading the introductions to various English and American tunebooks, and through the study of compositional techniques employed in the hymn-tunes and anthems found in these books.

By the end of the 1760s Billings himself was teaching psalmody in the singing schools of Boston, an activity he carried on in conjunction with his tanning trade during much of the rest of his life.18 This not only augmented his income, but also gave him the opportunity to rehearse his musical pieces, and to learn what was practical and effective in performance.

Billings probably began composing in his mid-teens, sometime in the early 1760s. Given the musical climate in Boston at that time, and the opportunities that were open to him, his compositional efforts were naturally directed toward psalmody and the music of the church. As a member of the Congregational Church,19 Billings was influenced by its musical philosophy, and he wrote for its musical needs, as well as for those of the singing schools which the churches often sponsored.

By 1770 Billings had composed two volumes of church music, one of which he published in 1770 as The New-England Psalm-Singer. The second volume, containing “Anthems, Fuges and Chorus’s, of his own Composition,” he announced, would be published if the first volume met “with Encouragement.”20 Apparently because of the political and economic upheaval of the Revolutionary War era, this volume was never published in its original form. A part of it appeared in 1781, undoubtedly greatly revised and updated, as The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement.21


Most European composers of the 1760s and 1770s wrote in a style quite different from that of the Anglo-American parish-church composer. The then-current style in concerted vocal and instrumental music emphasized the polarity of the treble melody and the bass. The intermediate parts tended to function more as harmonic support than as independent melodies. Fugal counterpoint, which reached its highest development in the works of J. S. Bach, was on the wane and was coming to be thought of more as “learned” technique than as spontaneous artistic expression. In church music, which maintained a conservative attitude toward stylistic innovation, the fugal style could still be found in some choruses, but even there the prevailing trend was toward homophony and melody-bass polarization.

William Billings composed in a musical style far removed from the practices of contemporary European music. He and other psalmodists of eighteenth-century America can be included with a group of English composers who, until recently, have been almost entirely neglected by musical scholarship.22 The English composers wrote for the musical needs of parish churches, often in the rural areas and market towns of the English countryside. Like Billings, they were largely self-taught, and were often employed as country singing masters, or as clerks in small parish churches. Most of these churches did not have organs. Although in some a bassoon or bass viol supported the singing, many others had only an unaccompanied choir of modestly trained voices. The parish-church composer forged a musical style based on practices long abandoned in English and continental art music. The parish-church style was passed on to Billings and his American contemporaries through the theoretical introductions and musical contents of their tunebooks, which were studied and emulated.

In the parish-church style the music was composed for unaccompanied voices, usually in four parts. The principal melody was assigned to the tenor voice, supported below by a bass voice, and accompanied above by two upper voices, the higher of which was called the treble, and the lower the counter.

The compositional technique employed in parish-church music was additive. The tenor melody was composed first, setting the words of a psalm or hymn in a certain fashion, according to the will, fancy, or inspiration of the composer.23 The manner of this setting, called the “air” of the tune, influenced the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of the other voices, for they were to take on as much of this air as could be allowed by the rules of composition and the composer’s abilities.24 The setting may be strictly syllabic, or may contain “transitions,” or brief melismas, designed to smooth over the roughness of a melodic leap.

The bass voice was then set to the tenor melody according to principles of consonant melodic motion found in theoretical treatises from at least as early as Jean Tinctoris’s Liber de Arte Contrapuncti (1477).25 Although it often moved in leaps of a fourth, fifth, or octave, the bass voice retained a modicum of the air of the tenor melody and usually made a good bicinium with the tenor.26

The treble voice was next composed to agree consonantly with the tenor and bass. This voice frequently formed a counter-melody to the tenor’s principal melody, duplicating its air and often moving in contrary or parallel motion in the same rhythm, but in the octave above the tenor range. The counter was the last voice composed, occupying the mid-range between the tenor and treble. It was usually the most restricted in melodic range and rhythmic activity, but it too should assume as much of the tenor’s air as could be permitted.

The music of the Anglo-American parish church of the eighteenth century was written by composers of limited training for singers of limited ability and sophistication. Melodic and harmonic subtleties such as syncopation, cadential suspensions, and tonal modulations are all but absent. The melodic lines in the four voices were thought of as four separate melodies vertically related note by note through the rules of consonant counterpoint. Harmonies formed by the conjunction of the voices usually make primary triads in root position, but the connection of these triads into harmonic progressions rarely follows the principles of common-practice tonal harmony observed in eighteenth-century art music.

The forms of Anglo-American sacred music were also traditional, dating from the Renaissance. The prevalent form was the psalm-tune or hymn-tune, a strophic setting of a metrical text. The Psalms were versified for congregational singing during the sixteenth century. The standard English psalter, translated by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others by 1562, was influenced by the Calvinist psalter of Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze. A few tunes from the Marot and Bèze psalter, carried over into the English psalter, were widely sung by English congregations. Most tunes printed in the psalter, however, are of unknown, presumably English, origin. Another group of tunes associated with the Psalms include some originating in Scotland and Wales.27

Although English congregations sang in unison, psalters with tunes harmonized in four parts were published for private, non-liturgical use, in much the same way that madrigals were published.28 In some harmonized psalters the tunes were set like small motets, with points of imitation and free polyphony in the accompanying voices. In most, however, the tunes were harmonized in block chords, with essentially the same rhythm in all parts. The psalm-tune was usually assigned to the tenor, with the remaining voices composed to harmonize with it according to the rules of counterpoint.29

The Renaissance psalm-tunes were transmitted to the composers of the Billings era chiefly through the psalters of John Playford, first published in the second half of the seventeenth century. Playford published four collections of psalm-tunes: An Introduction to the Skill of Music (1658 and later editions)—20 psalm-tunes in two parts; The Whole Booke of Psalmes Collected into English Meeter (1661)—43 psalm-tunes and 18 hymn-tunes in one part; Psalms & Hymns in Solemn Musick (1671)—43 psalm-tunes and 4 hymn-tunes in four parts; and The Whole Book of Psalms . . . in Three Parts (1677 and later editions)—60 psalm-tunes and 17 hymn-tunes in three parts. Of these, the last was the most important.30 Playford took many of the tunes from the Renaissance psalters of Daman, East, and Ravenscroft. He made changes in some of the melodies, but often copied the tune and bass voice directly from the earlier source. In many instances one can see that he fashioned his third part, or medius, by taking the first three or four notes of a phrase from one voice of the earlier setting, and the remaining notes from the other part.

An example of this process is seen in the tune called Cambridge. First printed in Daman’s psalter of 1579, it was also included in Daman’s 1591 psalter, East’s psalter of 1592, Allison’s of 1599, and Barley’s of the same year. Thomas Ravenscroft’s setting in his psalter of 1621 differs substantially from previous settings. Although the tune (in the tenor voice) is the same, the harmonizing voices are quite different.

Ex. 1 Cambridge Tune Ravenscroft, Psalm 2

Playford’s 1677 setting is obviously based on Ravenscroft’s 1621 version. Except for being transposed a whole tone higher, the tune is identical. Only one note in the bass differs from Ravenscroft’s setting (the third note in the first phrase). In addition, all but one note in each of the first three phrases of the middle voice, and all but two notes in the final phrase, are found in the same place in one of the two upper voices of Ravenscroft’s setting.

Ex. 2 Cambridge Tune Playford, Psalm 2

Playford’s settings of sixteenth-century psalm-tunes were passed on to composers of the Billings era through both English and American sources. Playford’s 1677 psalter was reprinted frequently during the first half of the eighteenth century, reaching its twentieth edition in 1757. Tunes from the psalter were also reprinted, often in only slightly varied versions, in many other eighteenth-century tunebooks. Cambridge, for example, appeared in James Green’s A Collection of Psalm Tunes (London, 1718), his A Book of Psalmody (London, 1734), John Chetham’s A Book of Psalmody (London, 1745), and John Arnold’s The Compleat Psalmodist (London, 1761)—the latter being a book that Billings surely knew.

In American tunebooks, virtually unaltered settings from Playford’s psalter form much of the collection of tunes in Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick (Boston, 1721–1764), John Tufts’s An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm-Tunes (Boston, 1721–1744), Thomas Johnston’s tune supplement entitled “To learn to sing” (Boston, 1755–1767), Daniel Bayley’s A New and Compleat Introduction (Boston and Newburyport, 1764–1768), and his The Psalm Singer’s Assistant (Boston and Newburyport, 1764–1770?).31 Josiah Flagg published some of Playford’s original settings in his A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes (Boston, 1764); others he seems to have taken in slightly variant versions from Arnold’s The Compleat Psalmodist.

Billings was probably familiar with most of the American books listed above, particularly those by Bayley and Flagg. The setting of Cambridge found in Flagg, which seems to have been taken without change from Arnold, shows a distinct relation to Playford. The principal melody, in the tenor, and the bass are identical, and, except for the first phrase, the treble is the same as Playford’s medius.32

Ex. 3 Cambridge from Flagg, A Collection, p. 17

Through local tunebooks like Walter’s, Flagg’s, and Bayley’s, a Boston musician like Billings had access to the sixteenth-century psalm-tunes in Playford’s seventeenth-century versions. They may well have served as instructional examples in his early singing-school experiences, and as models for his beginning efforts in composition.

While sixteenth-century psalm-tunes were still being sung during the first half of the eighteenth century, a new type of psalm-tune was also evolving—one more lively and spirited than the old melodies. It may have developed initially from the English practice of ornamenting the slow-paced psalm-tunes with trills, passing tones, and other graces. Theoretical introductions to most tunebooks of the day encouraged the singer to fill in melodic leaps with quick passing tones, to trill cadences, and to apply other graces to their parts as their skill and taste permitted. Congregational singing in most churches was entirely by rote and under the tenuous control only of the parish clerk, who chose the tune, set the pitch, and led the singing as best he could.33 Writings on church music from the time reveal that congregational singing was often ornamented improvisatorially by members of the congregation, sometimes with only scant reference to what others were singing at the same time.34 An example of the ornamented psalm-tune is seen in the setting of Windsor found in Michael Broome’s A Choice Collection of Sixteen Psalm Tunes (Birmingham, c. 1735).35

Ex. 4 Windsor from Broome’s A Choice Collection, p. 10

Composers began to write original psalm-tunes embellished in a similar fashion, leading to what was earlier described as the parish-church style in Anglo-American psalmody. A motivating force behind this new spirit in psalmody was Henry Playford, who took over his father’s publishing business when John Playford died in 1687. In 1701 he published The Divine Companion, a collection of newly composed psalm- and hymn-tunes, and simple anthems by some of England’s best composers, including John Blow, William Croft, and Jeremiah Clark. Designed to be bound with John Playford’s 1677 psalter, which Henry reprinted many times virtually unchanged, the collection was directed toward the musical needs of the parish church.36 Tunes and anthems from The Divine Companion were reprinted by other tunebook compilers and became models for parish composers during the first third of the eighteenth century.

Among the most influential parish composers was William Tans’ur (c. 1700–1783). Probably self-taught, or at best with little formal musical training, Tans’ur plied his trade as a singing master in the small towns surrounding London, finally settling in St. Neots during the last several decades of his life.37 Tans’ur began publishing his tunebooks in 1734 with A Compleat Melody. While he did not initiate trends in English psalmody, he did much to popularize the innovations of others. As influential as the psalm-tunes and anthems in his tunebooks were the theoretical introductions, which codified the musical and compositional practices of the psalmodists.38 These theoretical introductions were frequently copied, often with little or no change, into similar instructional sections in later English and American tunebooks.

Tans’ur’s Uppingham illustrates an intermediate stage in the development of the ornamented psalm-tune. The principal melody in the tenor is decorated with passing tones and brief melismas; but the remaining voices are unadorned, similar to what one might find in Playford’s or Ravenscroft’s psalters.

Ex. 5 Uppingham from Tans’ur’s A Compleat Melody, p. 74

Tans’ur and other parish composers often wrote ornamented parts in all voices, frequently casting their settings in a skipping 3/2 meter, which featured a dotted quarter-note and an eighth-note on the first beat of the measure. This rhythmic profile became a hallmark of the parish-church-music style during the 1740–1780 period, and can be found with some frequency in the music of later parish composers, particularly the American psalmodists.

Another innovation that entered parish psalmody around 1720 was the introduction of sectional solos and duets into the psalm-tune. An element of textural contrast was thereby added, which had important implications for the future development of psalmody. The technique can be seen in William Knapp’s Dorchester.

Ex. 6 Dorchester from Knapp’s A Sett of New Psalm Tunes, p. 42

This type of setting, which has been called an antiphonal or responsorial tune,39 may have been a progenitor of the much more important species of psalm-tune called the fuging-tune.40 The fuging-tune, which contains at least one section given over to imitative counterpoint with verbal conflict between the voices, rose to prominence in England about 1750. Transmitted to America in the tunebooks of Arnold, Ashworth, Knapp, Tans’ur, and Williams, the fuging-tune was taken up by American composers, slowly at first but after 1780 with enthusiasm. It remained an important species of psalm-tune in America until the early 1800s, although in England, after an initial heyday during the 1750s, enthusiasm for it waned and there was a gradual decline in its composition.

The fuging-tune appeared in several forms, but a distinction can be made between two principal types: tunes in which the fugal section is an inseparable part, without which the tune is incomplete; and tunes in which the psalm-tune is complete before the fuge begins, the fugal section being an optional chorus which may be sung or omitted as circumstances might suggest. The latter type was preferred by Billings, although most other American composers favored the former.

The fuging-tune admitted a number of variations in structure. Although in most the fugal section appeared toward the end of the tune, a fuge could also begin the piece. Some fuging-tunes may have two or three distinct fugal sections. Occasionally a composer combined the antiphonal tune with a fuging chorus, as seen in Tans’ur’s Westerham.

Ex. 7 Westerham from Tans’ur’s Royal Melody Compleat, p. 96–97

Billings was familiar with the types of psalm-tunes just discussed, and similar examples of each can be found in The New-England Psalm-Singer. The slow, homorythmic tunes, such as Hampshire, New Town, Asia, and Nutfield, seem almost to imitate Playford’s style. Some tunes, such as North River, show relatively little ornamentation, while others, such as Dorchester, are highly melismatic. It is apparent that Billings, in an effort to learn and master his craft, composed in many styles and genres. Thus we find a great diversity in style among the psalm-tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer, with tunes of an austere simplicity standing side by side with others of rather complex polyphony. Billings also composed antiphonal tunes and fuging-tunes, but he did not publish many of them in his first tunebook. The second volume of music which Billings had ready for publication in 1770 would, most likely, have contained more of these advanced types of psalm-tunes. Some of them were probably printed in revised form in The Singing Master’s Assistant and The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement.

Another form of the same antiquity as the psalm-tune, the anthem represented the most formidable musical challenge of the parish musical tradition, the most complex musical form that its composers tackled. The anthem was most often a through-composed setting of a portion of scriptural prose, frequently part of a Psalm.41 It developed in England during the sixteenth century from the Latin motet when the liturgical language changed from Latin to English.42 Some early anthems were merely Latin motets in English translation; others were set to original English texts, but in a style similar to that of the motet.

During the latter part of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century the anthem divided into two species: the full anthem, set for chorus throughout; and the verse anthem, which alternated sections for solo voices with sections for full chorus. In the cathedrals and collegiate chapels, where English church music reached its highest levels of complexity, the verse anthem was preferred. Accompanied by organ or a small orchestra, the cathedral anthem of both types reached the proportions of a major composition, requiring skilled solo, choral, and instrumental performers.

Early in the eighteenth century the parish-church choir, after it had mastered the rudiments of music and psalm-tunes, began to take up more demanding music. Lacking the resources and the performing skill of the cathedral and chapel musicians, the parish choir required a simpler, more straightforward music. Instrumental in supplying this need was Henry Playford, whose The Divine Companion not only encouraged the use of embellished psalm-tunes, but also introduced short anthems in a simplified style accommodated to the needs and abilities of the parish-church choir. The same composers and compilers of tunebooks who supplied collections of psalm-tunes were also likely to include a selection of parish anthems in their tunebooks.

Temperley describes typical examples of the parish anthem as follows:

In construction they were clearly based on the cathedral model; but the composers, lacking the skill of trained organists (and lacking also the vocal and instrumental resources of the cathedral choir), developed a simpler, more straightforward manner, and one in which characteristic archaisms and imperfections in technique became a part of the established style. The smooth overlapping of sections attained by means of imitative counterpoint in the cathedral full anthem was generally lacking, and the country anthems are frankly broken up into separate sections, often with stark contrast of texture, tempo, metre, and mood. But although the original model was the cathedral anthem, the country anthem developed independently, retaining its own character.43

Sixteen Anthems, a collection of parish anthems by William Tans’ur, William Knapp, Joseph Stephenson, Caleb Ashworth, and Aaron Williams, was published in Boston by Josiah Flagg in 1766. Many of the tunebooks from which these anthems were taken were already in limited circulation in Boston at the time. In addition, James Lyon’s Urania (Philadelphia, 1761), which included the first anthems published in America, had certainly made its way to Boston before Flagg published his collection.44 Thus Billings probably knew, sang, and studied the anthems in Flagg’s, Lyon’s, and the English collections before his first efforts in the form to which he would contribute so significantly.

Although he was almost certainly unaware of it, the roots of Billings’s style extend back in musical history to the sixteenth century and earlier. A distinct correlation between the parish-church style and the medieval motet can be found in the use of the additive compositional technique and the fondness for open fifths and octaves at important structural points. The four-part choral settings of the psalm-tunes, with the principal melody in the tenor voice, relate to the Elizabethan psalters of Daman, East, and, later, Ravenscroft. The harmonic language, however imperfectly it may have been used, is distinctly tonal and of the eighteenth century. The old church modes, still observed in Ravenscroft and, to a certain extent in Playford, play no part in the parish style. The forms, in spite of some technical innovations introduced in the eighteenth century, are traditional and also date from the Renaissance. Thus Billings and the Anglo-American parish composers of his era may be viewed, not simply as exceptions entirely isolated from eighteenth-century religious composition, but as provincials whose music is still related to a broader stylistic continuum.


The following notice appeared in the Boston Gazette of December 10, 1770:

WILLIAM BILLINGS TAKES this Method to inform the Public, that his Composition of Church Musick intitled, the NEW ENGLAND PSALM SINGER, is published, and to be had at Edes and Gill’s Printing Office in Queen Street; at Deacon Elliot’s under Liberty-Tree; at Mr. Josiah Flagg’s in Fish-Street; and at Mr. Gillam Bass’s, near the Flat Conduit—where Subscribers and other Purchasers may apply for Books.—Those Persons that have Subscription Papers in their Hands, are desired to leave them at Edes and Gill’s Office; and in so doing, they will oblige their humble servant, WILLIAM BILLINGS. P.S. Any Gentlemen Subscribers, or others that incline to purchase, who reside in the County of Plymouth, may be supply’d by applying to Capt. Joseph Cushing in Hanover, near North-River Bridge.

This was the culmination of what must have been a long and sometimes trying experience for Billings: composing 127 pieces, getting them engraved, writing a lengthy theoretical introduction, selling the tunebook by subscription, waiting eighteen months for paper45—all of this must have occupied his leisure hours over a period of many months or even years. It is no wonder that Billings, recalling the final moments of preparation some eight years later, wrote fondly but in his typically facetious and dramatic way:

Oh! how did my foolish heart throb & beat with tumultuous joy! With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and putting on the covers, with what extasy did I snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and pressing it to my bosom, with rapturous delight, how lavish was I, in encomiums on this infant production of my own Numb-Skull?46

The New-England Psalm-Singer has long been recognized as the first American tunebook devoted to the compositions of one composer, the first to consist entirely of American compositions, and the tunebook responsible for introducing a new spirit into American psalmody. These are important attributes which assure it a secure place in American musical history. Another unusual and noteworthy thing about The New-England Psalm-Singer, however, is that it was not preceded by any hint of its coming. None of Billings’s tunes can be found in any print predating The New-England Psalm-Singer. There were no trial runs, nor any testing of the waters by including a tune or two in earlier collections. Billings, a young, unknown composer, burst upon the Boston musical scene with a publication of major dimensions without, apparently, any previous public exposure of his compositions in print.47 The history of printing in eighteenth-century America suggests that such a scenario is extremely unlikely, and it may indicate that Billings’s reputation as a teacher of psalmody in Boston was firmly established in 1770. He could expect a sufficient number of students and patrons to subscribe to his tunebook to guarantee its publication.48

The New-England Psalm-Singer was printed from engraved plates, except for the text of the theoretical introduction, which was set in type. The similarity between the engraving style of the tunebook and that of Flagg’s Sixteen Anthems has been noted previously by several scholars.49 This similarity, plus Flagg’s name on the title page and an advertisement in the prefatory matter for a music pen sold by him, offers convincing evidence of Flagg’s involvement with the tunebook. The extent of this involvement is open to some question, however.

An analysis of the engraving technique suggests that a set of punches containing musical symbols was used to incise the notation on the engraving plate. Such a method of engraving produces symbols of a very regular size and shape, but also occasionally of uneven shading when the punch is not set squarely on the plate before being struck. Striking the punch harder or softer produces a variation in the depth of the engraved symbol, affecting the darkness of the finished print. All of these attributes are observed in Billings’s tunebook. Strikeovers and poorly corrected errors offer further evidence of the use of musical punches. The set apparently consisted of punches for the treble and bass clefs; whole-, half-, and quarter-notes; dots and whole- and half-rests. An alphabetic set of punches was used for titles and text, and a scriber was employed to draw straight lines and slurs and to add flags to eighth- and sixteenth-notes. Apparently no five-line staver was available; each set of staves appears to have been drawn by hand, line by line.50

It has been suggested that Paul Revere engraved the whole tunebook.51 Revere did engrave Flagg’s A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes, the neat style of which contrasts sharply with the inelegant, often clumsy engraving of Billings’s tunebook. Revere did engrave the frontispiece in Billings’s book, and his signature on this prefatory illustration and the lack of any claim by someone else to have engraved the music apparently led to an erroneous attribution. The frontispiece was Revere’s only contribution to The New-England Psalm-Singer, and its contrast with the main body of the work is so strong as to eliminate Revere from serious consideration as its engraver.

Josiah Flagg has a stronger claim as the engraver of The New-England Psalm-Singer.52 His connection with the tunebook has already been noted. The title page of his Sixteen Anthems, which he claims to have “Engraved and Printed,” indicates that he had already some experience with music engraving. The same engraving tools used in Sixteen Anthems were also employed in The New-England Psalm-Singer. However, a comparison of the two tunebooks turns up some doubts about attributing the engraving to Flagg. Although the styles are similar, Flagg’s collection is so much neater in appearance that, if Flagg did engrave Billings’s tunebook, there was a noticeable deterioration in his engraving technique.53 Present evidence does not permit us to name the engraver with full certainty, and his identity must await the discovery of new information.

The tunebook begins with a remarkable frontispiece showing seven gentlemen sitting around a parlor or tavern table singing from four open tunebooks. The leader, on the far right, keeps time with his left hand while holding what may be a pitch-pipe in his right hand. Surrounding the picture in circular form is a six-part canon, the second phrase of which is designed as a ground bass, as the instructions at the foot of the page indicate, “to be continually Sung by 3 or 4 deep Voices with the 6 other parts.” The text is a hymn of praise to Jesus by the Reverend Mather Byles, a Boston minister and poet.54

The frontispiece suggests the dual, sacred-secular role of the tunebook in eighteenth-century America. Such gatherings of gentlemen for recreational psalm-singing were probably not uncommon. The lack of female or boys’ voices for the upper parts need not have hindered the performance, since these parts could have been sung an octave lower. Perhaps the frontispiece was meant to suggest that the tunebook had recreational uses beyond the church and singing school, and hence was offered as an inducement to a class of potential purchasers which the other situations did not include. In any case, it appears likely that Revere’s engraving was intended to portray a real rather than idealized situation, and while its value as an example of actual performance practice is limited by its context, it is nonetheless important for what hints it gives us about the way the music was performed.

The similarity of the frontispiece to one found in William Tans’ur’s The Royal Melody Compleat (London, 1755) has been noted by McKay and Crawford.55 Undoubtedly, it was the model for Revere’s engraving. However, Tans’ur’s canon is for only four voices. The idea for a canon of six voices in one probably came to Billings from Aaron Williams’s The Universal Psalmodist, where a similar musical setting is found.56 Thus at the outset we have indications of the influence of these two composers on Billings and The New-England Psalm-Singer. As will be shown in the course of this essay, they exerted other, more substantial influences on the tunebook and its composer.

The title page and following preface have been perceptively analyzed by McKay and Crawford, and need be only briefly mentioned here.57 The title page makes two noteworthy points: first, that the book is an American production containing works never before published; and, second, that the author is young. The nationalistic appeal of the work is given emphasis by the title, subtitle, and the composer’s statement of his nationality. In Boston in 1770, with feelings against Great Britain running high, an appeal to native patriotism was likely to assist the tunebook’s sales. Billings suggests his youth by quoting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, 21:16, “Out of the Mouth of Babes and Sucklings thou hast perfected Praise.” Perhaps as a mollifying gesture to Boston’s Tories, who made up a sizeable part of the city’s population, Billings included a stanza of his own:

O praise the Lord with one Consent, and in this grand Design,

Let Britain and the Colonies, unanimously join.58

The preface also emphasizes Billings’s youth and inexperience, asking the critics to forbear and be tolerant of the errors which are sure to be found. Thanking the gentlemen whose subscriptions made the publication of the tunebook possible, Billings particularly notes the contribution of the author of the “Philosophical Essay on Sound,” who wished to remain anonymous. After suggesting that, because everyone is aware of the efficacy of psalmody, he need not dwell on it, Billings cites several ways in which his tunebook differs from earlier ones. He has endeavored to include a balanced collection of tunes in all poetical meters, and he has tried to compose them in a plain and simple style yet with a “modern Air and Manner of Singing.” He says, in other words, that the purchaser will find enough tunes in his collection to meet his musical needs, and these tunes will be stylistically up-to-date.

An Essay on the Nature and Properties of Sound

Following the preface there is a section which has no precedent in any English or American tunebook of the eighteenth century: “An Essay on the Nature and Properties of Sound.” The anonymous author, identified in later years as Dr. Charles Stockbridge, a Scituate, Massachusetts, physician,59 gives an accurate and succinct account of the propagation of sound waves; an anatomical description of the ear and how it receives and transmits the impression of sound to the mind; and a discussion of musical intervals and consonance and dissonance. The essay ends with an account of the supposed cure by music of the bite of the tarantula, as an example of the “many wonderful effects” of music on the human psyche.

The essay presents no new research. All of the information in it was fairly easily available to the educated man of 1770. The virtue of the essay, however, is that this diverse information is assembled and presented in a publication designed to reach a wide audience. In spite of the breadth and variety of the potential readership, the essay is not written in a popular vein, intending to entertain. Its purpose is to inform, and it is addressed to the reader willing to exercise his intellectual capacity.

The basic scientific data on wave propagation of sound were well established by 1770 through earlier research by Sauveur, Leibnitz, Newton, and others. As a physician, Stockbridge would have been familiar with human anatomy, and books on the subject were easily available in Boston bookstores. The Pythagorean system of interval calculation had been a part of musical theory for generations. The one seemingly discordant note in Stockbridge’s otherwise scientifically sound exposition of his subject is the anecdotal ascription of curative powers to music in cases of tarantula bite. However, this widely circulated belief was a commonplace found in many popular accounts of the effects of music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It does no real injury to Stockbridge’s scientific credibility to have it included in the essay.

The question which naturally arises at this point is why this formal and rather austere essay was included in a work whose primary purpose was practical and didactic. Its usefulness to practical music-making is questionable, and there appears to have been no crying need for the information, as evidenced by the fact that the subjects do not reappear in any eighteenth-century American tunebook. McKay and Crawford suggest that Billings included it as “a kind of talisman, which might tend to identify him as a man of intellect and discernment.”60 They also suggest that Stockbridge may have been a patron whom Billings wished to honor.61 Both of these speculations have merit, the former being more likely, perhaps, in view of Billings’s later efforts to gain recognition as an intellectual.62 However, one may suggest motives for publishing the essay which are less calculated and equally in line with Billings’s personality.63 Again, we have no precise data on an interesting aspect of the tunebook, and a firmer conclusion must await the discovery of new information.

The Theoretical Introduction

A section dealing with elementary musical theory follows the essay, which Billings entitled “An Introduction to the Rules of MUSICK, with such Directions for Singing as is most easy and necessary for Learners.” Since most tunebooks were intended primarily as instructional manuals for the singing school, a discussion of musical notation and rudimentary voice production was a necessary preface to a collection of tunes. Similar instructional sections are found in most English and American tunebooks of the eighteenth century. Many of these prefaces are just a few pages in length, giving only an abbreviated presentation of musical symbols and concepts, leaving it to the singing master to cover the subject more fully in class. A few are extensive, covering not only the rudiments of music, but also such subjects as composition, history, and aesthetics, which bear little practical value to most singing-school students. Billings’s introduction treads a middle ground, on the whole avoiding extended discussions of matters of little practicality, but explaining basic concepts perhaps a little more fully than usual.64

Following models found in Tans’ur, Williams, Bayley, and other tunebooks of the day, Billings organized his introduction to proceed from the most basic matters to less fundamental concepts. The first three chapters are primarily concerned with managing the voice, while the next five teach basic musical notation and theory. It is likely that this was the order of lessons as Billings taught them in his singing schools. Billings’s thoughts on certain aspects of choral performance and composition, and a dictionary of musical terms conclude the introduction.

The theoretical introduction is generally well organized and practical, but it is not without its mislocations. For example, the explanation of first and second endings is found on a sheet at the end of the tunebook, because, as Billings explained, “it intirely slipt my Memory till the Introduction was printed.”65 Triplets, choosing notes, and the “grace of transition” are covered in the chapter on the moods of time. The first two might better have been dealt with in the previous chapter on musical symbols. The grace of transition should perhaps have been discussed in a separate chapter on musical ornamentation, a subject which Billings does not cover in any length or with clarity anywhere in the tunebook. Billings divides his discussion of the location of “mi”—a vital concern in the English fasola system of solmization which he employs—between Chapter I, dealing with the gamut, and Chapter VII, concerning the keys of music. Undoubtedly he would have explained matters more clearly to his singing-school classes, but the student without a master, and with only a few months of singing-school training, must have been left with many unanswered questions and unresolved problems.

It appears probable that Billings knew and consulted the following tunebooks in compiling his theoretical introduction:

english tunebooks

  • William Tans’ur. A New Musical Grammar (London, 1746)
  • William Tans’ur. The Royal Melody Compleat (London, 1755)
  • Uriah Davenport. The Psalm-Singer’s Pocket Companion (London, 1758)
  • John Arnold. The Compleat Psalmodist, 5th ed. (London, 1761)
  • Aaron Williams. The Universal Psalmodist, 3d ed. (London, 1765)

american tunebooks

  • Josiah Flagg. A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes (Boston, 1764)
  • Thomas Walter. The Grounds and Rules of Musick (Boston, 1764)
  • Daniel Bayley. A New and Compleat Introduction (Boston, 1766)
  • Daniel Bayley. The Psalm-Singer’s Assistant (Boston, 1767)
  • William Tans’ur. The American Harmony; or, Royal Melody Complete (Newburyport, 1769)

Billings gleaned information from many of these tunebooks and adapted it to his own theoretical introduction. In some cases he quoted directly from a source; more often, however, he closely paraphrased an earlier author. The theoretical introduction contains relatively little that is original with Billings, but that is not at all unusual. Since on the whole the matters they discuss are common to most Anglo-American tunebooks, most compilers took their information from earlier compilers, who in turn borrowed from their predecessors.66 By comparing the manner of expression used by Billings with that found in earlier English and American tunebooks, it is possible to identify many of his sources.

Billings begins his theoretical introduction with a discussion of the gamut or musical scale, which for his purposes extends from F to g″, the compass of the bass and treble staves without ledger lines. He also explains the three clefs he employs in his music, i.e., the treble, counter (C clef on the center line), and bass, and the English fasola system of solmization. Billings must have considered it very important that his students know the gamut, for he devotes much of the following two chapters to explaining it. Much of the information in Chapter I appears to come from two sources: the fasola system from Walter, and Plate I and the discussion of clefs from Williams. The text of Chapter II seems largely original with Billings, but the illustrations may have been taken from Arnold or Davenport, and Williams, respectively. In Chapter III, the exercises for tuning the voice were taken, for the most part, from Williams. The pitch-pipe scale was probably also taken from Williams, but the descriptive text is a combined paraphrase of both Williams and Bayley’s New and Compleat Introduction.

Having dealt with the scale, clefs, and the management of the voice, Billings turns to a discussion of musical symbols, with the names and values of the six notes used in psalmody and their equivalent rests. Precise identification of sources here is difficult because this basic part of musical instruction is presented in similar terms in nearly all tunebooks. It appears that Billings relied mostly on Williams as his source, although he included an occasional phrase from Tans’ur’s New Musical Grammar. The substance of Plate III seems to come from Williams, although the triangular format of its presentation may have been suggested by similar tables in Tans’ur, Davenport, or Arnold.

Supplementary signs and symbols, necessary for the student to understand before reading even the simplest psalm-tune, are the subject of Chapter V. Billings discusses eleven musical signs that the student will encounter in The New-England Psalm-Singer.67 The illustrations and text appear to have been taken from Bayley’s American Harmony, with occasional interpolations from Williams, and from Tans’ur’s New Musical Grammar.

Following his presentation of musical symbols, Billings next discusses time and tempo. Like other Anglo-American psalmodists, he employs the “moods of time” system, in which each time signature, in addition to establishing the quantitative contents of each measure, also implies a tempo.68 Billings uses seven moods of time in his music: four of common or duple time, and three of triple time. Compound time had apparently not yet become a part of his musical vocabulary.

The tempo of the second, or “Largo,” mood of common time was a point of disagreement among psalmodists. Most authors say that it is quicker than the first, or “Adagio,” mood, but they disagree on the precise temporal relationship. Billings himself introduces an inconsistency in his discussion of the “Largo” mood by saying that it is “half again as quick as the former, so that three Minims in this Mood are to be performed in the same Time as two Minims are in the Adagio Mood.”69 Since the standard tempo for the “Adagio” mood is established at 𝅘𝅥 = m.m.60, Billings’s instructions would give a metronomic tempo for the “Largo” mood of 𝅘𝅥 = m.m.90.70 However, in the discussion of the pendulum by the pseudonymous Philo-Musico, writing from Cambridge, which Billings includes as a footnote to the chapter, “a proportion of 4 to 3” is given for the “Largo” mood, or a tempo of 𝅘𝅥 = m.m.80. Billings clouds the issue further by saying that it is “often fixed to Psalm Tunes, in which the Crotchets and all other Notes in Proportion are Sung in the Time of Seconds [i.e., 𝅘𝅥 = M.M.60], so as to make no Distinction between this and the Adagio Mood except in Anthems and other brisk Pieces of Music.”71 The second mood of triple time is similarly related to the second mood of common time by Billings, so that “A Crotchet in this Mood is to be performed in the same Time as a Crotchet in Largo.”72

Included along with the discussion of time and tempo is a mention of the “Grace of Transition,” by which the performer is encouraged to fill in melodic leaps with short, diatonic melismas; as well as information on the performance of choosing notes (i.e., diads or triads in a single voice part). The first two paragraphs in Chapter VI are a direct quotation from Davenport, while the following illustration may have come from Davenport or Flagg. The explanation of the moods of time appears to have come from Bayley’s American Harmony, which is itself a paraphrase of Tans’ur. However, Billings did not copy verbatim from Bayley, but adapted it along with some of his own thoughts on the subject.

The footnote on the use of pendulums in determining tempo, attributed to Philo-Musico, probably came from Tans’ur’s New Musical Grammar, which presents an extended discussion of the topic. A second footnote, on the use of musical terms to alter tempo, and a method of beating time, appears to have been paraphrased from the same source. The example of the “Grace of Transition,” while similar in some respects to examples found in Tans’ur, Williams, and Davenport, seems to be original with Billings. The two paragraphs dealing with triplets and choosing notes are a paraphrase from Williams.

Chapter VII covers the keys of music with particular emphasis on coordinating the poetical mood of a psalm or hymn with a similar musical mood in the tune. Major or “sharp” keys are regarded as cheerful and are suited to Psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Minor or “flat” keys are called melancholy and are recommended for Psalms of penitence and prayer.73 Theoretically, Billings recognizes major and minor keys to the extent of seven sharps and seven flats; but in practice at this point in his career as a composer, he employs no key signature beyond three sharps or three flats.74

A direct quote from Davenport begins Chapter VII, which is followed in the second paragraph by a paraphrase from Walter, either directly or through Bayley’s A New and Compleat Introduction. The musical examples of A minor and C major, the two “natural” keys, are original but closely resemble examples in Williams and Tans’ur. The extensive example of the various major and minor keys through seven sharps and flats does not come directly from any source, but similar examples are found in Davenport, Arnold, and Williams. The final two paragraphs in the chapter appear to have been drawn from Williams.

In Chapter VIII Billings discusses concords and discords in music. This part of musical theory had little practical application for the singer; but it was of vital concern to the composer of psalmody. Perhaps, because of its limited practicality, Billings makes little of it, merely identifying the consonant and dissonant intervals, but saying nothing of their application to a musical context. Chapter VIII appears to have been taken from Tans’ur’s Royal Melody Compleat, either directly or from one of Bayley’s reprints of that section. Tans’ur’s discussion is more extensive and serves as a theoretical foundation for his section on thoroughbass and his chapter on the rules of composition, all of which Billings omits.

Billings’s most original contributions to his theoretical introduction come in Chapter IX, “Thoughts on MUSIC.” He deals here with only three topics: the distribution of the voices in a choir, the pitching of the tune, and singing a solo. He advises the choir leader to assign fully half its members to the bass part, apportioning the remaining parts to the rest of the company as best suits their voices. For reasons of sonority and musical effect, he recommends that about a third of the basses be assigned to the ground bass, i.e., the deepest pitches in the bass line, lying normally an octave below the ordinary vocal bass part. He says that the tune should be pitched in the key in which it is notated, but allows some latitude to the performer to vary the pitch slightly above or below the notated key.75 In solo lines he recommends that only two or three singers be employed rather than the full section to heighten the contrast between the solo and tutti sections.

Much of “Thoughts on MUSIC” seems to arise from Billings’s experience with choirs and singing schools and does not owe its origins to others. The advice about pitching the tune may have been suggested by Tans’ur, but the other recommendations do not appear in other tunebooks which Billings seems to have consulted. “Thoughts on MUSIC” shows Billings, as a choir leader and composer, to have been acutely concerned with the effect of music upon the listener. He seeks in every way to heighten the innate drama of the musical performance. Psalmody may have been principally a performer’s music, but the more capable composers of the tradition, such as Billings, were always conscious of the listener and his reactions to the music.76

Concluding the theoretical introduction proper is a section addressed “To all Musical Practitioners,” which in ensuing years has caused more misunderstanding than any other section in any of his tunebooks. Such provocative statements as “Nature is the best Dictator,” “I don’t think myself confin’d to any Rules for Composition laid down by any that went before me,” and “it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver” have been interpreted by some writers as Billings’s declaration of musical independence. Such reputable historians of American music as Chase, Ellinwood, and Hitchcock have seen the pose of rugged independence as the most striking thing about Billings’s words.77 In context, however, these statements are less radical than they might at first seem. Far from blazing his own trail through a musical wilderness, at this early stage in his career Billings followed the compositional precepts set out by William Tans’ur rather closely.

Billings’s address “To all Musical Practitioners” seems to boil down to a rather ornate apology for not including a full set of instructions for composing music in his theoretical introduction. In excusing his purposeful omission of compositional rules, Billings makes three perceptive points. The first is that it is not enough to know the musical scale, time, and intervals; one must also have talent, and talent cannot be taught. The second point says that all compositional systems allow exceptions to prescribed procedures, which give the composer latitude and undermine the force of the rules. Billings’s third point is that each composer must himself develop his own set of compositional principles, and for Billings to prescribe such principles for someone else would be both futile and vainglorious. These ideas, along with thoughts on the roles of Art versus Nature (or, if you will, learning versus innate talent), show Billings, even at this early age, to be grappling with questions that most of his contemporaries in Anglo-American parish-church music hardly seem to have noticed.

The resolution of these problems, while never systematically organized and presented by Billings, would be the foundation of his musical growth and development over the next quarter century.

The final chapter in the theoretical introduction is a dictionary of musical terms, some of which had appeared in the theoretical discussion just concluded, some of which are to be found in the music to follow, and a few of which do not occur in the tunebook at all. While some definitions are vague and of little practical value, most are useful and apply directly to the tunebook’s contents. Almost all the terms and their definitions were taken from Tans’ur, either directly from one of his publications, or through Bayley’s The American Harmony. In some cases, Billings added an explanatory or clarifying phrase to Tans’ur’s or Bayley’s definition; in others he copied verbatim. For a few terms he culled a definition from Tans’ur’s text rather than the dictionary, and for a few others he supplied his own definition.

Throughout the introduction one encounters short snippets of doggerel verse, usually placed in a didactic context. Billings’s fondness for verse follows in the steps of Tans’ur, Arnold, Davenport, and other tunebook compilers, all of whom employ it as an aid to the student in remembering the theoretical principles just presented. Most verses appear to be Billings’s own; but the first two were taken either from Davenport or from Arnold.

Other unexpected inclusions are the advertisement for the sale of five-line music pens by Josiah Flagg, and the entreaty by Billings for ladies to save their linen rags for the paper mill. From the latter we learn that The New-England Psalm-Singer had been ready for the press eighteen months earlier, but that Billings had delayed its publication to have it printed on American paper. This was not a display of patriotism on Billings’s part, but the result of practical necessity. Paper was one of many items taxed by the Townshend Acts of 1767. The Boston merchants agreed not to import taxed items, including paper, which caused a heavy demand on American papermakers. Under the circumstances, a delay of eighteen months for Billings to receive the necessary paper to have his tunebook printed does not seem extraordinary.78

Although there is relatively little in it that is an original theoretical contribution, and the matters dealt with are common to most Anglo-American tunebooks of the eighteenth century, Billings’s theoretical introduction is a creditable performance for the twenty-four-year-old musician. What it may lack in organization is made up for by the clarity of the explanations. Billings was primarily concerned with imparting useful information, not with impressing his contemporaries with his taste or erudition. Originality was not his goal. Although he relied, in some cases quite heavily, upon some earlier tunebooks for his basic text, he rarely copied verbatim, but almost always paraphrased the text or supplemented it with his own observations. The student using the tunebook probably found it as helpful in learning the rudiments of music as any other available at the time, and considerably more so than some.


The musical contents of The New-England Psalm-Singer consists of 127 musical pieces: 118 psalm-tunes of various types, 5 anthems, and 4 canons. The arrangement of the musical portion of the tunebook is diverse, not to say chaotic, and reveals no logical method of tune selection or organization. During the eighteenth century English tunebooks were frequently arranged according to the metrical psalter, beginning with Psalm 1 and ending with Psalm 150. Not all of the Psalms were always included, nor were all stanzas of those that did appear. Many Psalms could be sung to the same melody, and the complete text was available in metrical psalters without music.79 Other methods of organization are occasionally found in Anglo-American tunebooks of the day: the grouping of all tunes in the same poetic meter, or all tunes in the same key, or occasionally an alphabetical arrangement by tune name. Perhaps because the Congregational Church did not emphasize ritual, most American tunebooks before and after Billings follow no discernible order in arranging the musical contents. Billings followed this tradition in The New-England Psalm-Singer.

The pieces show great variety in style and competence on Billings’s part. Some settings are quite complex, some have a stark simplicity, and others show a doubtful technical facility. If it can be assumed that pieces of greater musical complexity and technical competence were composed later than the simpler ones, the diversity of style suggests that tunes which must have been composed only shortly before their publication stand beside those which may date from the early years of Billings’s experience as a composer. In choosing tunes for The New-England Psalm-Singer, Billings seems to have settled on offering the public the greatest variety that he was then capable of achieving.

Since the psalm-tunes show such diversity, grouping those containing similar characteristics may reveal something of Billings’s compositional techniques. Such groupings suggest a chronology of sorts, but any attempt to establish a precise chronology on the basis of style is, of course, highly speculative. Many factors besides the technical competence of the composer may enter into his choice of a musical setting, and we have no direct evidence that Billings’s simpler pieces were composed before the more complex ones. However, with Billings, a composer of limited musical education and experience, attempting to write practical music in a narrowly circumscribed style, it may not be too far off the mark to consider his more complex, technically more competent pieces as representing a later, more developed style. In any case, an analysis of the musical settings reveals certain compositional traits suggesting a rough chronology among the psalm-tunes; but the tables which follow should be considered more as listings of tunes with similar musical characteristics than as a well-defined chronology of Billings’s compositional development.

Three characteristics in particular may help to determine the state of Billings’s craft at any given moment in his creation of the music for The New-England Psalm-Singer: the presence of what may be termed a “false bass”;80 the presence of diads, triads, and occasionally four-note chords in the treble and counter parts;81 and the greater melodic and rhythmic independence of the treble and counter voices relative to the principal melody in the tenor.82 The first two seem to be early traits that disappear in the more complex pieces, while the last appears to be a later trait which can be found more and more as Billings gained experience as a composer.

It seems sensible to believe that the earliest tunes are those showing the most pervasive early traits. Such pieces are usually plain tunes in a note-against-note style, with little melodic independence between voices. The upper voices seem to be little more than harmonic accompaniment for the tune in the tenor, with frequent diads and triads. In the bass one often finds the ground bass, sounding an octave below the normal bass line, and the “false bass.” The tenor melody is more restricted in range than in the other pieces and generally lacks the characteristic sweep of a Billings melody. The tunes listed in Table I show these characteristics and may date from the early years of Billings’s career as a composer.83

The New-England Psalm-Singer also contains a group of tunes displaying the “false bass” and diads and triads in the treble and counter, but which shows a greater range and fluency of melody and a somewhat greater independence of voice-parts. These tunes may date from a somewhat later period in Billings’s musical apprenticeship. In most the plain style of the musical setting is modified by admitting an occasional passing tone or short melisma into the note-against-note style. Some tunes show the first tentative approaches toward the parish style, which was to dominate Billings’s later pieces.84 Tunes belonging to what will be termed Billings’s early-middle period are shown in Table II.


Possible Early Tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer



New Hingham

Old Brick



New North




New South







New Boston






Possible Early-Middle Period Tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer


The 18th Psalm





North River



Hollis Street

No. 45




Old South

Tower Hill









The tunes belonging to what may be termed the middle period proper show differences in technical facility. While many still retain some early traits, the counterpoint in all voices is more fluid. The treble, in particular, begins to exhibit the melodic independence that characterizes many of Billings’s later psalm-tune settings. Most of the tunes in this group are composed in the parish style, although Billings often shows a pronounced awkwardness in that style. Voice leadings are not as smooth as in later tunes, and there are occasional problems with prosody. The tenor melody in these tunes shows great fluency, usually spanning an octave or more in range. Table III lists those tunes which appear to date from the middle period:


Possible Middle Period Tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer




Queen Street




St. Elisha’s

Brattle Street



Sapphick Ode




Summer Street


Hanover New



East Town

Hymn For Christmas

Orange Street




Pembroke New





Wheeller’s Point

Tunes perhaps composed at a later time can be divided into two groups: tunes showing considerable technical advances over those of the middle period, but which still retain some vestiges of the early traits; and tunes achieving a fluency of style and security of technique marking the fullest development of the parish style in Billings’s music at this point in his career. These tunes approach Billings’s implied goal of bringing the secondary treble melody near to the fluency and independence of the principal melody in the tenor. The counter also assumes a greater melodic identity, while the bass is less burdened with false bass and frequently omits the ground bass. The tenor melody shows characteristics of range, sweep, and melodic complexity found in Billings’s best tunes. Into this group Billings also introduces more variety in form. While the plain tune still predominates, one also finds the antiphonal tune and the fuging-tune. Table IV lists those tunes which, on the basis of style characteristics, may be classified as late.


Possible Late Tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer















Old North




Pleasant Street












Purchase Street




Characteristics of stylistic development suggest that a final group of nine tunes may have been composed just shortly before the publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer. They show the greatest independence of voices, fluency of counterpoint, and control of musical material which Billings achieved in the tunebook. Five tunes were, in fact, carried over into

Billings’s next tunebook, The Singing Master’s Assistant, with little or no change, indicating that Billings was reasonably satisfied with them and saw no need for extensive alterations. Table V lists the tunes believed to represent the latest ones in the tunebook:


Possible Latest Tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer85










The model for Billings’s plain tunes appears to be the psalm-tunes in Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick. Most of these tunes appeared in Playford’s 1677 psalter, and although set in only three parts, they show similarities in melodic construction and part writing to the pieces by Billings that seem to date from early in his career. In one aspect, however, Billings’s early settings differ from all prior English or American models. Billings frequently uses two-, three-, and four-note chords in the treble and counter parts, and occasionally three- or four-note chords in the bass. Such settings as seen in Chesterfield, Hanover, New Boston, Friendship, and Unity are without precedent in Anglo-American psalmody, and show Billings’s early concern for unusually dense choral sonority.

We do not know when Billings became familiar with the psalmody of William Tans’ur, but it appears to have been fairly early in his career as a composer.86 Many of the tunes suggested as belonging to the early-middle period seem to draw upon Tans’ur as a model, showing a similarly restricted range of melody and counterpoint. Tans’ur’s The Royal Melody Compleat was known in Boston prior to 1760, when excerpts from it appeared in Thomas Johnston’s reprint of Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick.87 Tans’ur may have been an early influence on Billings, but one that Billings seems to have outgrown quickly.

Many of the tunes assigned to the middle period already seem to surpass Tans’ur’s limited aesthetic and technical abilities. In St. Elisha’s, Pembroke New, Brattle Street, Summer Street, and Dorchester, Billings attempts a more eloquent and complex musical language, and he approaches in competence the best composers in the English parish-church-music tradition. His technical development seems to continue throughout The New-England Psalm-Singer. His melodies assumed the unique characteristics of breadth and sweep that were his hallmark; his contrapuntal handling of the accompanying voices became more deft and imaginative; and he began to show that concern for the expressive setting of words that would be a central focus of his future development as a composer.

Billings was accused by a later writer of being “an awkward harmonist and a worse contrapuntist.”88 Even those writers who recognized his innate genius and admired some of his melodies were quick to point out his frequent transgressions against the harmonic principles of European art music.89 These writers were either unaware or chose not to recognize that Billings composed according to a different set of musical procedures, not current in European art music since the Renaissance—the successive composition of vocal parts according to the rules of consonant counterpoint.

Billings’s compositional procedures, outlined earlier in this essay, were codified for the psalmody tradition by William Tans’ur in his A Compleat Melody (London, 1734).90 Tans’ur’s fourteen rules covered most of the allowed consonant motion between two voices, giving copious examples of permitted and forbidden passages. Tans’ur also discussed the introduction of dissonance into the music by means of passing tones between consonances. Although he mentions discords “by way of binding” (i.e., suspensions), he does not discuss them or give examples.91 Tans’ur’s rules were reprinted in slightly expanded form in his New Musical Grammar (London, 1746) and abbreviated in his Royal Melody Compleat (London, 1755). They also form the basis for the rules for composition found in Israel Holdroyd’s The Spiritual Man’s Companion,92 Caleb Ashworth’s A Collection of Tunes,93 and John Arnold’s The Compleat Psalmodist.94 These are probably the books that Billings meant when he wrote in The New-England Psalm-Singer, “I have read several Author’s Rules on Composition.”95

Billings appears to have followed Tans’ur’s precepts quite carefully. Composing the tenor melody first, he set a bass to agree consonantly with it according to Tans’ur’s rules. Billings rarely makes a contrapuntal error, such as parallel perfect fifths or octaves, or a forbidden motion, between these two voices. He is usually also quite careful when setting the treble to the tenor, with very few contrapuntal errors between these voices; but a few problems do occasionally appear between the treble and bass. When he composed the counter voice to complete the four-part setting, Billings could afford some “Musical Licence,” as he called it.96 The rules Billings followed allowed an occasional parallel fifth or octave in three or more parts, if the transgression could not be easily avoided and was covered by a higher part.97 This is not to say that Billings’s music is free from error, or that at the age of twenty-four he had completely mastered his craft and style. This is demonstrably not the case. It is suggested, however, that Billings had a better grasp of his compositional technique than he is generally given credit for.

Noting in his preface the fondness of other compilers for tunes in common meter, Billings promised his subscribers a well-balanced collection, with “a Sufficiency in each Measure.” He carried through on this promise, but he also aimed at introducing variety in other aspects of the music as well. In time, key, style, and form he provided a pleasing and somewhat unexpected variety. Seven different metrical patterns are found in The New-England Psalm-Singer, a sufficient range to cover most of the verse patterns of the psalms and hymns in common use. Although common meter is most prevalent—found in more than a third of the tunes—it does not dominate the collection as is the case in many other tunebooks.98 Long meter and short meter have nearly as many tunes; and hallelujah meter, six eights, and, the most commonly found particular meters, each includes several tunes for hymns in these meters.

According to the metrical implications of their time signatures, most of the tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer were intended to move along at the fairly brisk pace of 𝅗𝅥 = m.m.60 or 𝅘𝅥 = m.m.120. This tempo plus the dotted-quarter and eighth-note impulse given to the first beat of many tunes in 3/2 time give an impression of lightness to the melody quite unlike the tunes sung in earlier times. Triple meter predominates in the collection, with nearly three-fourths of the tunes in one of the three moods of triple time.99 Most of the duple-time tunes are slow, plain-style settings. Billings seems uncomfortable with the third mood of common time, which he employs in only twelve tunes, only two of which—Brookline and Chester—show a security of technique and a fluency of melody corresponding to the more advanced triple-time tunes in the collection.

Billings closely followed tradition in choosing the keys for his tunes. It was earlier noted that in his theoretical introduction he recognizes key signatures of seven sharps and seven flats in both major and minor modes, but in The New-England Psalm-Singer Billings uses no more than three sharps or three flats. To the composers in the psalmody tradition, whose music was intended for unaccompanied voices, the choice of key was largely determined by the range of the principal melody, and was more a device for keeping it within the bounds of the five-line staff than an expression of absolute pitch.100 Thus if a melody, which normally had a range of an octave or less, lay between the dominant tones of a key, the tonic would likely be centered on A, B♭, or C. If the melodic ambitus lay between the tonic tones, the key center would usually be lower—D, E, F, or G.

For the unaccompanied choral music of psalmody seven major and seven minor keys were sufficient to provide a major and a minor key for each letter of the gamut. Key signatures of more than three sharps or three flats are rare until the last two decades of the eighteenth century. In the English fasola system of solmization absolute pitch was unimportant, and since the primary purpose of the key signature was to keep the melody within the bounds of the staff, it did not matter whether a particular letter, standing for a key, was expressed in sharps or flats.101 In their choice of keys composers of psalmody usually opted for the simpler of two key signatures. Thus we find tunes in A major, but seldom in A♭ major; in E minor but seldom in E major (E♭ major, having one less accidental, is preferred); F major but seldom F minor (F♯ minor being used in its place), and so on.

Billings employed thirteen key signatures in The New-England Psalm-Singer. Keys with fewer sharps and flats were preferred. Thus key signatures with no more than one sharp or flat make up over seventy percent of the psalm-tune repertory. Approximately three-fifths of the keys are in the major mode. Only six tunes include accidental sharps, and these are used so casually as to appear to be more afterthoughts than a regular practice.

The formal structures of psalmody found in Tans’ur, Williams, and the tunebooks of other English psalmodists are also found in Billings. Over eighty percent of the 118 psalm-tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer are plain tunes.102 The plain tune was the foundation of congregational singing in New England churches and the most prevalent form found in American tunebooks before Billings’s time. Eleven settings are tunes with extension, eight of which have the second part of the tune repeated. More complex than the plain tune, the tune with extension was probably composed for performance by the singing school and the church choir; but the congregation may have joined the singing after having learned the melody with its repetitions through repeated performances. Six are antiphonal tunes, in which one or more voices drop out during the course of the tune, so that some phrases are scored as sectional solos, duets, or trios. These too seem designed for choral rather than congregational performance, but most could have been sung by the people after learning the parts by hearing them sung again and again. Several antiphonal tunes have successive entrances of the voices like the fuging-tune, but lack the requisite verbal conflict. These tunes were surely limited in performance to the singing school, church choir, or a similar organized and experienced singing group.

In the three fuging-tunes that Billings included in his tunebook he established a formal preference that held throughout the rest of his career. The fuging-tunes are so-called “fuging choruses,” in which the psalm-tune is complete prior to the beginning of the fugal section. Thus the psalm-tune could be sung without the fuge, if the performers lacked the skill to manage the counterpoint, or if the tune were sung in public worship where the verbal conflict in the fuge may be considered inappropriate.103 Billings modelled his fuging-tunes on those of William Tans’ur, but even at this early date Billings surpassed his model in the technical development of the form. Tans’ur’s fuging-choruses are short and contrapuntally rather simple, with little verbal conflict. Billings’s Europe, for example, is longer, more complex in counterpoint, and richer in motivic development than any of Tans’ur’s fuging-tunes.

Eighty-one of the 118 psalm-tunes are printed without text. Billings explained his omission of the words with the note: “No doubt the reader will excuse my not adapting words to all the tunes as it is attended with great inconveniency.”104 At first glance it appears that Billings, because of laziness or indifference, failed to include an important aspect of any vocal or choral setting; but the modern reader, accustomed to associating a hymn with a particular tune as is the case in modern hymnals, should remember that this was not the practice at the time when The New-England Psalm-Singer was published. In psalmody any set of words could be sung to any tune having the same poetic meter so long as its spirit matched that of the text. Thus what might appear as Billings’s casual disregard of an important feature of a tunebook is actually his following of a long-standing tradition.

The remaining thirty-seven psalm-tunes in the collection are assigned words in one way or another. Twenty-five tunes are supplied with either a full or partial text. Billings included the words under two conditions: when the text underlay was unusual and required precision, as in the fuging-tune; and when the text was not available in standard text sources. Many of the non-standard hymns are by local poets, or by Billings himself.

Billings was careful to credit the words he used by local poets other than himself. Two of the texts are by the Reverend Dr. Mather Byles, pastor of the Hollis Street Church in Boston, and a well-known local poet and hymn-writer. One hymn is credited to Samuel Byles, a Boston physician. Five texts are ascribed to the pseudonymous P.M., who has been identified as Perez Morton, later a well-known Massachusetts legislator and attorney general, but in 1770 a student at Harvard College.105 Nine texts are unattributed, but four of these are ascribed to Billings himself in his The Singing Master’s Assistant. It seems likely that all nine are by Billings.

The twelve remaining tunes have no text underlaid, but all refer to a psalm or hymn in their caption title. For example, Malden is assigned to “Ps. 106,” Union to “Ps. 25,” Pembroke to “Hymn 17,” Brookfield to “Hymn 72d,” and so on. Citations to Psalms might refer to the old Bay Psalm Book or the Sternhold and Hopkins version, both still in use in some places, or more likely to the Brady and Tate New Version, which was coming into wide use.

The assignment of a tune to a specific hymn, however, raises the problem of identifying the collection of texts Billings used. English collections by Watts, Doddridge, Whitefield, and the Wesleys were available, as well as a few collections published in America. However, most of these could not meet the two conditions necessary to establish positive identity: the collection must be easily available in Boston, and the citation must correspond exactly with the poetical meter of that hymn in the collection. Only one collection fitted these criteria. Frequently published in Boston during the 1760s and 1770s, and usually bound with Brady and Tate’s New Version of the Psalms, the collection of 103 hymns entitled Appendix Containing a Number of Hymns Taken Chiefly from Dr. Watts’s Scriptural Collections filled both conditions.106 That this was the collection which Billings intended to be used with The New-England Psalm-Singer is confirmed by two tunes: An Hymn for Christmas and Boston. Both are supplied with a partial text and cited as “hymn 26” and “hymn 33d” respectively. The hymn numbers and text incipits correspond exactly with those in the Appendix and with no other collection. The Appendix contains a selection of hymns taken from Isaac Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs and his Psalms of David Imitated, with a few texts taken from other authors.

Four canons are found in The New-England Psalm-Singer, which, except for the frontispiece canon, all seem to have been included merely to fill up empty space on the printing plate at the end of a piece. In spite of their casual nature, the canons are interesting studies in melody and counterpoint, and include one melody of considerable musical merit, set to Perez Morton’s intensely brooding words, “When Jesus wept.” Except for the frontispiece canon in six parts, the canons are in four parts with the following voices entering at the unison at the beginning of the second phrase.

Canons were often found in English tunebooks from as early as Henry Playford’s The Divine Companion (London, 1701). Billings probably took as a model for his efforts the ten canons that appear in Aaron Williams’s The Universal Psalmodist. Williams also inserted canons to fill up empty space on the plates, and most resemble Billings’s in style. The canon, in the form of the catch, was a popular type of recreational music in eighteenth-century England. It may also have had value as a didactic device in the singing school to help students develop independence of voice leading. Canons almost certainly found no place in the musical part of church services.

The New-England Psalm-Singer includes five anthems,107 a form in which Billings would make significant contributions to the parish-church-music repertory during his lifetime. Even at this early stage of his development certain characteristics are revealed that show up in later works as compositional traits. All of the anthems are substantial compositions, through-composed and multisectional, with little melodic or motivic carry-over between the sections. Although Billings followed no rigid formula, the basic principle of his larger compositional structure seems to be contrast: follow a section for full chorus by one in which the various sections of the choir sing individually or in pairs; follow a fugal section by one in block chords; follow a solo or duet in the male voices by a balancing and contrasting solo or duet in the women’s part. The interior structure of a section is determined largely by the text. Billings is quite sensitive to textual imagery, and he frequently reflects this in his settings, not only in obvious ways, such as word-painting, but also more subtlely by the mood, tempo, tessitura, and pace of the setting.

At this early point in his development as an anthem composer, Billings was not always capable of notating his musical intentions. Bar lines, on the whole, are meaningless, and the time signature is sometimes useful only to determine the basic tempo of a section. In spite of notational handicaps, Billings responds to the declamatory qualities of his texts. One of Billings’s strengths in his later anthems is his flexible prose declamation, which follows the natural rhythm of the words and fashions a supple and expressive vocal line through those rhythms. This quality is also found in The New-England Psalm-Singer, although it is frequently hidden under apparently incompetent musical notation. By trying to force a non-metrical text into a regular procession of duple or triple measures, Billings does violence to the metrical organization of the music and covers his subtle response to the accents and inflexions of the words. However, in performance it seems likely that the singers would adjust the musical accents to conform to the textual accents.108

Most of the texts for the anthems were taken from the Psalms, but here again Billings shows characteristics of selectivity and creativity that mark his anthems throughout his career. The important thing to Billings is the meaning of the words and the expression of that meaning through the musical setting. To enhance meaning and its transmission he does not hesitate to alter phrases, substitute words, or omit whole lines of text. Holy Writ is not sacrosanct to him, and he molds his text to his expressive and dramatic purposes, sometimes mixing various versions of the sacred text with phrases of his own devising.

It is difficult to suggest a chronology for the five anthems in The New-England Psalm-Singer. They all share musical characteristics found in the psalm-tunes which are thought to be early traits; however, they also have a vocal range, an independence of parts, and a contrapuntal complexity equal to the latest pieces in the collection. It seems probable that they were all written within a few years of their publication. Billings took the anthems of William Tans’ur, Aaron Williams, and William Knapp as models. Tans’ur, in particular, shares with Billings many similar problems in setting a prose text to a regular musical meter.

Billings’s metrical problems, not only in the anthems, but also in the eleven psalm-tunes that show metrical irregularities, stem from his inexperience with metrics, and his attempts to achieve effects beyond the ordinary. In a characteristically frank assessment of his musical abilities in 1770, Billings later wrote: “I was fool enough to commence author before I really understood either tune, time, or concord.”109 Metrical problems in six of the psalm-tunes result from Billings’s attempt to vary the singsong quality of the 3/2 meter by introducing hemiola.110 In three tunes Billings misinterpreted the basic meter of the text,111 but in the remaining two the problems result from a simple error in drawing the bar lines.112

It cannot be denied that The New-England Psalm-Singer contains Billings’s juvenilia, but we must, on the whole, disagree with him when he wrote that “many of the pieces in that Book were never worth my printing, or your inspection.”113 The music in that tunebook is, in many ways, more revealing of Billings’s character than any of his fanciful, waggish, or self-deprecating writings. It shows a young man, self-reliant, determined, perceptive, eclectic, uncritical, and enthusiastic. One perceives in The New-England Psalm-Singer a sense of enthusiasm for and joy in music-making that seems altogether missing in the tunebooks of Billings’s English contemporaries. The collection includes a number of works of substance and musical value. Twenty-two psalm-tunes were reprinted in revised form in Billings’s later tunebooks, and four went on to be among the most popular tunes that he composed. But among those pieces not republished are a number of good compositions which do not deserve their obscurity. The New-England Psalm-Singer not only represents a beginning for Billings as a composer, and presents a valuable record of his musical development, but it is also an interesting collection of psalm-tunes and anthems which, because of its poor engraving and notational difficulties, has been too long ignored.


The impact of a composer or a musical composition on a musical culture may be gauged in a number of ways. Perhaps the most direct and obvious of these is imitation. If certain musical traits or idiosyncrasies appear in the compositions of later composers, indicating or suggesting knowledge of the music of an earlier composer, then a certain influence may be presumed. Another means of determining influence is to observe the extent to which the music of a particular composer is used. If it is frequently reprinted in other publications, if it circulates widely in manuscript copies, if it is performed regularly, then one may suggest that it is influential. A certain impact upon the music of a community may be presumed from the collateral activities of the composer in the community. If he was an active performer and teacher, as well as a composer, one may assume that his music reached and affected persons who came in contact with him. The influence of one composer on another or on a musical culture is usually easier to suggest than to prove. One must assemble evidence with care and present it with discretion. However, when a composer occupies as pre-eminent a position as Billings did in American sacred music during the 1770s and 1780s, his influence on his colleagues and his culture may almost be taken for granted. Although the record of The New-England Psalm-Singer’s impact on American sacred music is scant, it seems sufficient to justify its reputation as a musical watershed in American psalmody.

In his History of Music in New-England (Boston, 1846), George Hood placed The New-England Psalm-Singer in its proper historical context:

This opened a new era for the history of psalmody in the colonies. The churches were at that time passing another mutation in the matter of their music. Watts’s Psalms and Hymns were then just being substituted for the Bay Psalm Book and other works. Billings saw the desire for change, and threw into the current of feeling, a style of music differing from that in use, but yet not so widely, as to violate their prejudices. This for him was the time for success; the tide of affairs all moved in his favor. The cultivation of music had been increasing since the time of the Reformation, in 1720; and the increased demand for music, was, as yet, but imperfectly supplied. The works that had preceded his, had afforded but small variety; his gave more; and as the last and greatest charm, it was the first American composition ever published in this country; and bearing a spice of patriotism on its pages, it became in that patriotic day, except with the critics, quite popular.114

Billings’s tunebook appeared at a critical juncture in the political, religious, and musical history of America. Colonial unrest because of British taxation was approaching the boiling point. The firm hold of the Puritan church on temporal affairs was relaxing as new ideas circulated. A new style in psalm-tunes by English composers was introduced into the New England repertory by Thomas Johnston, Josiah Flagg, and Daniel Bayley.

These events both aided and worked against the influence of The New-England Psalm-Singer. Because of unsettled political affairs, which grew steadily worse, few tunebooks were published during the 1770s. Thus there is little printed evidence that might show the immediate impact of the tunebook and demonstrate how widely Billings’s tunes may have spread immediately after publication. Other events—a more liberal attitude in the Congregational Church, and the introduction of a new, modern style in the psalm-tune repertory—were of great benefit to Billings.

Although few tunebooks were published during the 1770s, those that were almost immediately begin to include Billings’s tunes. In 1771 the Boston printer John Fleeming published The New-England Harmony, which included Brookfield.115 Three years later, in 1774, Daniel Bayley in Newburyport published John Stickney’s The Gentleman and Lady’s Musical Companion, and three of Billings’s tunes were included: America, Brookfield, and Sapphick Ode.116

The full hostilities of the Revolutionary War, which broke out in 1775, occupied the attention of everyone, so that even the modest musical publications of the previous five years were temporarily arrested. But in 1778 Billings himself sealed the fate of The New-England Psalm-Singer by reissuing its most popular tunes in revised settings, along with many new ones, in his The Singing Master’s Assistant. Twenty-two of the 118 tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer were reprinted, often with substantial changes in the musical settings. The new, revised settings became the standard versions of these tunes in future reprints by other compilers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Eight tunes first published in The New-England Psalm-Singer became some of Billings’s most popular and enduring works.117 Chester, used as a marching song during the Revolutionary War, remained popular both as a hymn and as a patriotic song well into the nineteenth century. It ranks along with Amherst, Brookfield, and Lebanon as one of four tunes from The New-England Psalm-Singer to be reprinted most often in the years to come.118

Although most compilers preferred Billings’s revised versions of his early tunes for reprinting in their collections, some tunes did retain their original settings or appear in versions more closely related to The New-England Psalm-Singer than to The Singing Master’s Assistant. Amherst, Brookfield, and Chester in Andrew Law’s Select Harmony (Farmington, Ct., 1779) were reprinted in slightly modified versions that relate more closely to The New-England Psalm-Singer than to The Singing Master’s Assistant. Chester is included in Simeon Jocelin’s The Chorister’s Companion (New Haven, 1782) in its earlier version, while Amherst in the same tunebook shows elements taken from both settings. Both Amherst and Brookfield in John Norman’s Massachusetts Harmony (Boston, [1784]) relate to The New-England Psalm-Singer, and may have been taken from Law’s Select Harmony. Unexpectedly, two tunes that cannot be called some of Billings’s more popular ones, never before reprinted, turn up in Jacob French’s The Psalmodist’s Companion (Worcester, 1793).119 Barry in French’s collection is Barre in The New-England Psalm-Singer, but it has been revised to eliminate the technical infelicities of the earlier version. Similarly, French’s Lesson VI is a revised version of Uxbridge, showing changes such as Billings made in the tunes he reprinted in The Singing Master’s Assistant.

Billings’s music probably circulated rather widely in manuscript during the 1770s. Although few manuscripts are precisely dated, the frequent appearance of some Billings tunes on the flyleaves, endpapers, blank pages, and manuscript supplements in tunebooks published during the 1760s and 1770s suggests that his music was in wide use outside the covers of The New-England Psalm-Singer.120 Billings himself confirmed such a circulation in an advertisement following the preface of The Singing Master’s Assistant by requesting that his “Musical Friends” who had “taken copies from this work, and perhaps with some variation . . . kindly submit all former Copies to this Publication, which has been corrected and amended. . . .”121

A manuscript collection including at least thirteen tunes by Billings, compiled by a young woman in the early 1780s, is an important indicator of the strength and character of the manuscript tradition in American psalmody.122 Of the thirteen tunes attributed or identified as Billings’s pieces several were never published by Billings.123 Other pieces, which were published by him, show significant changes in the musical text that can best be explained by considering them as earlier versions of those pieces.124 Three tunes from The New-England Psalm-Singer appear in slightly varied form in the Waterhouse manuscript: Albany, Brattle Street, and Europe. Europe is identical with Billings’s revised reprint of the tune in Music in Miniature; however, Albany and Brattle Street were never reprinted by Billings. They both lack the ground bass which appears in The New-England Psalm-Singer, and only the first half of Brattle Street is included in the manuscript version. The revisions are similar to those that Billings made in tunes from The New-England Psalm-Singer, reprinted in The Singing Master’s Assistant and Music in Miniature. It seems unlikely that the compiler of the manuscript collection would have made these alterations, and they may well be Billings’s own revisions that circulated after publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer.125

So few tunes by other American composers were published during the 1770s that it is difficult to assess the impact of Billings’s tunebook upon them. Only at the very end of the decade, in Law’s Select Harmony, do other New England composers make an appearance. Sixteen compositions by nine composers other than Billings are included in this tunebook. There is no way to tell when they started composing, and while the style of their tunes is similar to Billings, it shows no distinctive traits which would lead one to connect their development with The New-England Psalm-Singer.

On the other hand, we do possess a document which shows Billings’s direct influence on the musical development of Daniel Read. Read (1757–1836), second in popularity only to Billings as an eighteenth-century American composer of psalmody, began composing in the 1770s. A manuscript collection of his early musical pieces, dated 1777, is now owned by the New Haven Colony Historical Society. Many of these tunes show such a marked similarity to those in The New-England Psalm-Singer that one must believe that Read had studied it thoroughly as a foundation for his own compositional efforts. Many tunes show strings of two-, three-, and four-note chords in the treble and counter voices found in Billings’s tunes such as Chesterfield, Pembroke, Plymton, and Unity. In Stamford,126 Read goes Billings one better by including a five-note chord in the treble voice. Several of Read’s tunes have three- and four-note chords in the bass, similar to Hanover, and he also employs the false bass, seen in Billings’s New-Town, Old North, Braintree, and Hollis Street. Read’s fuging-tune called Norway127 is closely modelled on Billings’s Milton, including a long tenor melisma while sustained chords are sung in the other voices. Later in the same volume Read’s tunes move away from their stylistic dependence on The New-England Psalm-Singer, and Read went on to develop his own style which only generally relates to Billings. However, one cannot deny that in the early stages of his development Billings looms large as a stylistic influence on Read.

The New-England Psalm-Singer was significant in another, unexpected, way. It was the first musical work in America to be granted legislative approval of a copyright privilege.128 In 1770, shortly before the publication of the tunebook, and again in 1772 Billings submitted petitions to the Massachusetts General Court (the state legislature) for copyright protection. The first petition was not acted upon. Although the 1772 General Court approved the petition, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, for reasons he kept to himself, refused to sign the bill as required to bring the legislative act into law. After this rejection, Billings no longer tried to secure copyright for The New-England Psalm-Singer. In 1778 he attempted to obtain protection for his The Singing Master’s Assistant and was again rebuffed. While one certainly may not claim that Billings’s experience with copyright led directly to the legislature’s passage of a strong copyright law in 1783, one can suggest that Billings’s petition of 1772 may have helped to establish a precedent upon which the General Court’s later action was based. But the law’s late date and its limitation to Massachusetts made it of little help to Billings. By 1783 many of his best and most popular tunes had passed into public domain and were freely reprinted by compilers in Massachusetts and other states without the permission of or any remuneration to the author.

Although the public record of Billings’s activities as a composer and singing master during the years immediately following the publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer is small, it does indicate a widening sphere of influence that extends beyond the confines of Boston. In 1771 he taught a singing school in Weymouth, Massachusetts. In January 1774 he began a school in Stoughton, Massachusetts, which later developed into the Stoughton Musical Society, whose activities have continued to the present day. In May of the same year he advertised a school in Providence, Rhode Island.129 Billings’s influence in Stoughton is demonstrated more clearly by the fact that two men born in Stoughton, and undoubtedly members of Billings’s classes there, went on to be well-known American psalmodists and composers.130 In Providence it has been suggested that Billings may have met Andrew Law, who was attending college there and was already active in psalmody.131

During the years between the publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer and that of The Singing Master’s Assistant Billings grew enormously as a musician and composer. He gained a secure grasp of counterpoint in the parish style, an understanding of metrics and prosody, a deepened sense of musical effect, and an increased imagination. Gone are the technical errors and the musical infelicities which, in The New-England Psalm-Singer, suggest a composer not quite able to control his musical material. The musical growth may have been in part due to Billings’s continuing study of the theoretical writings and music of the English parish composers.132 However, Billings’s increased activity as a singing master and a choir leader surely played a significant role in this development. He had the opportunity to try out his pieces, to hear what worked and what did not, and to adjust his music to create the best effect. Manuscript copies of Billings’s tunes, which often differ significantly from their published versions, suggest that Billings was a tinkerer, who wrote down a musical setting and then continued to revise it until it satisfied him.133

Whatever its intrinsic faults and failings, The New-England Psalm-Singer is one of the most important documents in the history of American music. More than any tunebook published in America before it, it represents a beginning of the American tradition in psalmody and church music. This tradition, as we have seen, is related to English parish-church music, but it is separated and distinguished from the English tradition in spirit, vitality, and flavor. The American composers of psalmody developed a parallel but different path, influenced, to be sure, by developments in English psalmody, but not dominated by it.134 William Billings, in many ways, helped to direct this development in an independent course by his activities as a composer, teacher, singing master, and musical enthusiast.


The Complete Works of William Billings began as a personal project of Hans Nathan, which was adopted by The American Musicological Society and The Colonial Society of Massachusetts as a contribution to the American Revolution Bicentennial. Volume II of the edition, containing The Singing Master’s Assistant and Music in Miniature, which include most of Billings’s popular works, was the first to be issued, edited by Professor Nathan. General editorial policy for the set was developed by Nathan, Richard Crawford, and others in editing Volume II, and is explained in the Introduction to that volume (pp. xi–xiv).

This and future volumes of The Complete Works of William Billings will attempt to follow closely the general editorial policy developed by Nathan, but with some flexibility reserved to take into account the idiosyncrasies of each of Billings’s tunebooks. Where necessity requires a change, such divergences will be pointed out in the editor’s preface to each volume. Otherwise, the user is referred to the introduction to Volume II (which is also included in this volume on pp. lxv–lxviii) for general editorial criteria.

The musical text of Billings’s The New-England Psalm-Singer is poorly engraved and printed. The softness of the metal used for the engraved plates, probably pewter, caused them to crack after only a relatively few impressions.135 Moreover, the engraver’s lack of skill caused imperfect corrections, strikeovers, and note heads which frequently do not sit accurately upon a particular line or space of the staff. This has produced many notes of uncertain pitch. In most cases the correct reading can be determined harmonically, for Billings’s harmony is almost exclusively triadic, with the root of the triad usually in the bass voice. Such interpretations have been included in the musical text of this edition without comment. Only where an obvious error exists, or where there is a legitimate question about the correct pitch is a note made in the critical commentary at the conclusion of the volume.

The purpose of the edition has not been to reproduce the contents of Billings’s tunebooks in precise detail, but to present the music and text as clearly and as accurately as possible, according to present-day editorial and notational standards, for performance and study. Billings employed some musical signs and verbal directions that have been omitted here. Most omissions are noted in the critical commentary; however, double bars at the end of each phrase, used by Billings to mark the poetic meter of the psalm-tunes, have not been retained.

Similarly, certain symbols have lost their meaning today and modern equivalents are substituted. Billings indicated the repetition of a phrase or section by placing the sign :S: over the first and final notes of the part to be repeated. In this edition the standard symbol, the dotted double bar, is used. The same sign was used in canons to indicate the point of entry of the second and succeeding voices; here it is omitted and the phrases of the canon are aligned to give an indication of the counterpoint. Billings employed the alto C-clef for his counter voice. Here it has been transcribed into the treble clef. The tenor voice of Billings’s original text is notated in the treble clef, but with the understanding that it is to be sounded an octave lower. The transposing treble clef has been used throughout this edition.

Because of difficulties in intermingling a typeset text with engraved musical examples on the same page, Billings printed the musical illustrations for his theoretical introduction separate from the body of the text. These illustrations have been returned to their proper places in the text, with references to the figure number in brackets replacing Billings’s citation of the page number in the original text.

Temporal implications of the time signatures in Anglo-American psalmody were explained by Professor Nathan in the introduction to Volume II. Metronomic equivalents listed there are followed in this volume, with one exception. Earlier in this introduction the conflicting interpretations of the second moods of common and triple time were noted and discussed. Since Billings stated his preference for the second mood of common time “being half again as quick as the former,”136 a metronomic equivalent of 𝅘𝅥 = M.M.90 has been employed rather than the standard tempo of 𝅘𝅥 = M.M.80. Similarly, concerning the second mood of triple time Billings wrote that “A crotchet in this Mood is to be performed in the same Time as a crotchet in Largo [i.e., second mood, common time],” so that the same tempo marking is used there also. However, as Nathan pointed out in Volume II, these metronome markings are only general suggestions of tempo, and should not be followed slavishly.

Billings included accidental sharps in only six of the 127 pieces in The New-England Psalm-Singer. Accidentals are used so rarely as to appear mere afterthoughts; however, they do help to show Billings’s intentions. Accidentals are more carefully included in the pieces reprinted in his later collections. These later additions have been included in this edition, but are placed above the notes to which they apply, in the manner of musica ficta in editions of Renaissance music. They may be employed at the discretion of the performer. A note in the critical commentary gives the source of each accidental that is used.

Reprintings of tunes from The New-England Psalm-Singer in Billings’s later collections suggest that he may have intended for the seventh degree of the minor scale to be raised at cadences, and the performer will do no violence to Billings’s music by doing so. Billings may also have intended for the fourth degree of the major scale to be raised when approaching a cadence on the dominant. Although the editor did not feel justified in including editorial accidentals at these places in the music, he does call the matter to the performers’ attention, and leaves it to their discretion.

Noting the “inconveniency” of text underlay (see Commentary on America, p. 359, below), Billings set very few words to the tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer, and those mostly by local poets such as Samuel and Mather Byles, Perez Morton, and Billings himself. There is no doubt that Billings intended the tunes in his collection to be sung, as was customary in his day, to any text that fitted the mood and poetic meter of the music. In a few cases he gave suggestions for the text in the caption title of the tune. In these instances, Billings apparently used the designation “Psalm” to refer to the Brady and Tate A New Version of the Psalms, first published in 1696, and frequently reprinted in England and America throughout the eighteenth century.137 He used the designation “Hymn” to refer to a collection of hymns often found bound with the Brady and Tate psalter, with the title Appendix Containing a Number of Hymns Taken Chiefly from Dr. Watt’s Scriptural Collections. This collection was published in Boston a number of times during the 1760s and 1770s.

Criteria outlined by Professor Nathan in the introduction to Volume II concerning the selection of texts have been followed here. Tunes with a caption designating a specific psalm or hymn have been supplied with a complete text from the New Version or Appendix according to that designation. If a tune without text or caption was reprinted with a text in a later Billings collection, that text was used here also, even though it does not appear in the Appendix or psalter. If a tune was reprinted in a later contemporary collection, but not by Billings, the text which was used in the reprint was used in this edition.138 Only after all contemporary sources for associating a text with a tune had failed did the editor attempt to choose an appropriate text in accordance with the mood and meter of the music. All texts chosen by the editor were taken either from the New Version or the Appendix. The edition consulted here was published in Boston for M. Dennis in 1762.

Although the texts from the psalter and Appendix have been followed closely, for reasons of clarity and consistency certain changes have been made. The first letter of each line of text has been capitalized and the left margin justified. Proper names, which appear in the sources in italics, have been set in Roman type. Misspellings appearing in the psalter and Appendix have been corrected without comment; but those that Billings included in the texted pieces in the tunebook, while usually corrected, have been noted in the critical commentary. When they seemed to reflect Billings’s thoughts or intentions, occasional misspellings have been retained, and are duly noted. Alterations made by Billings in the Biblical texts of the anthems have, of course, been retained and are also pointed out in the commentary.

Eleven of the psalm-tunes and all five of the anthems in which metrical irregularities appear have been rebarred in this edition. In most cases rebarring has been done to correct the declamation of the text, but occasionally also to correct the metrical organization of the music. When he reprinted tunes from The New-England Psalm-Singer in The Singing Master’s Assistant, Billings himself frequently shifted bar lines and changed time signatures to achieve better coordination between the textual and musical accents.139 In this edition Billings’s original note values have been retained; only the accents have been shifted. Usually these alterations could be accomplished by merely interchanging the original meter with one of the same basic value, such as the alternation of 3/2 and 2/2 measures. Billings did this with some frequency in his later anthems and more complex psalm-tunes. An effort has been made to use time signatures which Billings himself might have employed had he rebarred the pieces. However, in a few cases, when the rhythm of the music demanded an exception, time signatures have been used which would not have been found in the psalmody of Billings’s day.140

To give the reader an idea of the original metrical organization of the music, the original barring has been included above the treble part of each piece which has been rebarred. Tempo indications for each psalm-tune or section of an anthem which has been rebarred have been determined from the original time signature.


Like Volume II of this edition, this volume is also a cooperative effort. So many people have generously contributed in one way or another to this volume that it would be an impossible task to recognize all of them. However, it would be ungracious not to acknowledge the editor’s debt to those whose advice and encouragement contributed substantially to its completion.

What scholar of American music does not already owe a substantial debt to Richard Crawford? His bibliographical persistence and musical insights have contributed to many areas of the discipline. His name appears on the title page as editorial consultant to this volume, but his role was more that of a co-worker, sharing freely his advice, insights, and hunches, and also sharing the burden of formulating specific editorial policy, proofreading, and prodding the editor. Cynthia Hoover midwifed the volume, serving as coordinator, expediter, and general factotum, drawing up numerous production schedules and deadlines, only to see them fall as editorial problems intervened.

Hans Nathan, who originally conceived the project, helped develop general editorial policy, and saw Volume II through the press, shared his knowledge of and experience in Billings’s music as well as his preparatory work on Volume I with the editor. Martin Picker, Chairman of the Publications Committee of the American Musicological Society, contributed substantially to the volume by suggesting the manner of indicating the original barring of the rebarred pieces, as well as by advice and encouragement. Nicholas Temperley generously supplied chapters of his then unpublished Music of the English Parish Church to the editor in photocopy, and checked over the discussion of English church music for accuracy, offering many useful suggestions. Gillian Anderson, Howard Mayer Brown, James Haar, H. Wiley Hitchcock, Jeannine Ingram, Irving Lowens, and Anthony Newcomb all contributed suggestions for improvement.

The editor is grateful to the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island, for allowing their copy of The New-England Psalm-Singer to be used for the photographs of the tunebook appearing in this volume. Glenn Hogan of The Stinehour Press and Lila Aamodt of A-R Editions lent their expertise in typography and musical calligraphy to the publication of the edition. To all of these and to many more unnamed the editor expresses his thanks. He also gives his thanks to his wife, Marie, whose support of her husband’s enthusiasms and toleration of his idiosyncrasies contributed materially to the completion of his work.

karl kroeger