VOLUME III of The Complete Works of William Billings is devoted chiefly to music that Billings published in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement (1781) and The Suffolk Harmony (1786). It also contains three appendices. The first prints music by Billings published by other compilers but not by Billings himself; the second contains pieces by Billings that went unpublished in his own time; and the third carries the arrangements of ten British psalm-tunes that Billings published in his Music in Miniature (1779).

The early years of the 1780s appear to have been a time of considerable financial and musical success for Billings. In 1780 he bought a house on Newbury Street in Boston for £6000. Allowing for war-time inflation of currency values, this purchase suggests that his activities as a composer, singing master, and tanner provided Billings and his family a comfortable living. In 1781 he published his “long-promised”2 fourth collection of music, The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, the book in which he showed a growing mastery of the anthem and set-piece. There followed in 1786 The Suffolk Harmony, a book of tunes and anthems in which Billings breaks new ground in the smaller forms of psalmody. Both tunebooks show that Billings continued to develop as a composer during these years, showing a greater fluency in counterpoint, a deeper sense of dramatic effect, and a subtler feeling for word rhythms than he had evinced in his earlier tunebooks.

In addition to the two collections, Billings brought out several shorter publications during the 1780s and 1790s, which include five anthems, two fuging-tunes, and two psalm-tunes.3 The format of these works is both new and noteworthy. Before the 1780s, sacred music was published in the American colonies only in tunebooks and in tune supplements, which contained plain psalm-tunes, designed to be bound with metrical psalters. After 1780, however, sacred music also began to be published in smaller pamphlets of four, eight, or sixteen pages.4 Many of these shorter publications were directed toward particular occasions, such as Billings’s own Peace (1783), Abraham Wood’s Hymn On Peace (1784), Hans Gram’s Sacred Lines for Thanksgiving (1793), and Oliver Holden’s Dedicatory Poem for Performance at the Dedication of the New Brick Meeting House in . . . Lansingburg (1794). The subjects of these works help to demonstrate the attraction of the new format: a pamphlet of a few pages could be produced more quickly and run off more cheaply than a full-scale tunebook. Hence, it gave a composer a chance to respond to an event—a public celebration, religious festival, or special choral performance, for example—with a fresh work fitted for the occasion. Billings used the opportunity presented by the new format to bring out at least five shorter publications during the years 1783–1790.

During his lifetime and for a few years thereafter, Billings’s music often appeared in the tunebooks of other compilers. The pieces of his that circulated most widely were usually selected from among a dozen or so of his most popular tunes, chosen from publications unprotected by copyright.5 Billings used his tunebooks to introduce his own music to the public. Almost all pieces found in the tunebooks of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bearing Billings’s name are known to be his because he first published them himself. However, a few tunes that never appeared in any of his own collections were attributed to Billings by other compilers. Appendix I contains these works, though none of them can be absolutely proven to be by Billings.

As well as being printed in many tunebooks, Billings’s pieces seem to have circulated widely in manuscript. Billings himself indicated that some of the music in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778) had been copied by hand before the work ever saw print.

MANY of my Musical friends in the Country, have taken Copies from this work, and perhaps with some variation; therefore, I should esteem it a pecul[i]ar mark of their favour, if they would kindly submit all former copies to this Publication, which has been corrected and amended by their sincere friend and well wisher, The AUTHOR6

With this statement and other evidence in mind,7 the editor has searched for unpublished pieces attributed to Billings and for manuscript works that, even if unattributed, show strong musical resemblance to Billings’s style. Also, keeping in mind that manuscript pieces exist, as Billings noted, “perhaps with some variation” from printed versions, the editor has remained on the lookout for such copies—items with added sections, altered rhythmic values, ornamental changes in the melody, or variant accompanying vocal parts. In most cases, there is no way to determine who made these changes. However, the skill with which many have been made suggests an experienced hand. Since there were so few experienced American psalmodists in the 1770s and 1780s, when the manuscripts were apparently copied, it is tempting to think that some of the alterations may be Billings’s own. In the belief that inclusiveness is better than exclusiveness in such an endeavor, the editor has published in Appendix II all variant versions of pieces in manuscript that are clearly related to pieces known to be by Billings, or for which conclusive evidence for an attribution to another composer could not be found.

Appendix III contains Billings’s only known arrangements of other composers’ music. When he published Music in Miniature (1779), a supplement of textless tunes to be bound at the end of metrical psalters, he included ten British psalm-tunes, presumably because they were among the tunes to which congregations most often sang the Psalms.8 Although the melody and bass of some of these settings were probably copied from earlier printed sources, the treble and counter voices differ from those in other available versions. Thus, because the settings were Billings’s own, they are included here. (They were omitted from Volume II of The Complete Works because Billings did not compose the melodies.)

Volume III of The Complete Works of William Billings shows the composer at the height of his creative powers, producing works that were not only craftsmanly and met the musical needs of the church, singing school, and musical society of his day, but which sometimes seem to transcend those needs into an intensity of expression seldom matched in psalmody. Billings was, perhaps, the only American psalmodist of his time who had both the technical ability and the intellectual capacity to attempt to infuse the utilitarian character of psalmody with an artistic spirit more common to the parlor or theater.


On November 15, 1781, the following advertisement appeared in the Boston Independent Chronicle:

Music. Just Published, and to be sold by the Author a number of Fuges and Anthems, intitled, the Psalm-Singers Amusement; composed by William Billings (Author of the Singing-Master’s Assistant). The above mentioned Pieces were never before published.9

In slightly more than three years, Billings had brought out three tunebooks, each containing a substantial quantity of new pieces. The Singing Master’s Assistant had offered the public thirty-eight new works; Music in Miniature added thirty more psalm-tunes to this number; and now, in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, Billings presented an additional thirteen tunes,10 eight anthems, and three set-pieces.11 Thus, between 1778 and 1781, Billings published ninety-two new pieces, including twenty-one anthems and set-pieces.12 That achievement testifies both to Billings’s industry and to his musical skill. Almost without exception, these compositions are vital, imaginative, and individual—music which only Billings could have written.

In his two previous collections, Billings had provided music for the singing school and for use in public worship. The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement appears to address yet another group of singers: the musical society. Musical societies were groups of more or less accomplished singers who met to sing psalmody for recreation. They may have met in a church, a town hall, or at the homes of members. Occasionally, they announced a concert, but most musical societies seem to have existed chiefly for the enjoyment and edification of their members, leading a shadowy existence that left few marks on the public record. Nevertheless, by the 1780s the musical society was firmly enough established as an institution to attract the attention of composers, compilers, and publishers.13 Billings’s The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement seems ideally suited to a musical society’s needs.14 Although Billings made no direct claim for their patronage in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, its contents and particularly the admonition that “this Book is not designed for Learners”15 suggest that he had these groups in mind.

The title page of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement emphasizes its extra-ecclesiastical intent. Gone are the Biblical verses illustrating music’s sacred use and sanction. The very choice of title, as McKay and Crawford point out, is “calculated to conjure up the atmosphere of psalm-singing as pleasurable entertainment, rather than a sober obligation to God.”16 The graceful, rococo curves of the title-page border seem better suited to decorating a collection of secular songs than a book of psalm-tunes and anthems.17 Four musical scenes appear in the corners of the borders, none of them churchly.18 In The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, then, Billings seems to be addressing a public for which sacred music was more pious recreation than sacred duty.

Although the tunebook was engraved by John Norman, it was apparently printed by Billings himself.19 Whether Billings actually owned a copperplate press himself or was permitted to use that of an established printer is unknown,20 but there is no reason to doubt Billings’s claim. Two years earlier he had printed his Music in Miniature, and, like that work, The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement was engraved entirely on copper plates.21

Billings’s plates themselves appear to have been reused from those employed in the 1760s by Daniel Bayley and Thomas Johnston for some of their musical publications. A number of the pages in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement contain faint impressions of notes, flats, staves, and page borders, which apparently remained on the plates when the earlier notation was hammered out.22 While it is not possible to identify precisely the compositions over which Billings’s music was engraved, it seems likely that the plates had been used previously by Bayley for his A New and Compleat Introduction to the Grounds and Rules of Musick (Newburyport, 1764–68) and The Psalm-Singer’s Assistant (Newburyport, 1764–67), and for Johnston’s edition of Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained (Boston, 1764).23 It is not known how these plates reached Billings’s hands.24

Following the title page is a short “Advertisement,” in which Billings warned the neophyte looking for a singing-school tunebook that The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement would not meet that need. He further emphasized this point by omitting any discussion of the rudiments of music and by directing the learners to The Singing Master’s Assistant, a book better suited for instruction.25 In the “Advertisement,” Billings also identified the work as only part of the book of anthems he had announced as forthcoming more than a decade earlier.26 However, he went on to express the hope that the rest would be issued soon “at a much lower price.”27

In number of compositions, The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement is Billings’s smallest tunebook, containing only twenty-four pieces. However, nearly half of the works are long, relatively complex anthems and set-pieces, so that in physical size it compares favorably with Billings’s The Singing Master’s Assistant and other tunebooks of the day. Its 104 pages include eight anthems, three set-pieces, seven fuging-tunes, five tunes with extension, and only one plain tune. Although two or three similar pieces are occasionally grouped together, the various types of pieces are spread rather evenly throughout the tunebook.

In the style and spirit of its music, The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement picks up where The Singing Master’s Assistant left off. The last third of that tunebook contained music for the accomplished singer—long anthems and complex fuging-tunes—music to which the singing-school student could aspire through study and practice in the school, church choir, and at home. Addressed even more directly to experienced singers who no longer needed beginning instruction, the music in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement could challenge them with a variety of musical forms, keys, vocal techniques, and choral textures. The range and diversity of these musical attributes led McKay and Crawford to characterize The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement as Billings’s “most flamboyant performance.”28

What is noteworthy in the music of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement is not simply the length of its compositions but the integration of musical materials and expression into convincingly dramatic settings of the words. Billings had composed long works before—the anthem “As the Hart Panteth” in The New-England Psalm-Singer29 is one of his longest pieces—but he had not yet mastered the knack of sustaining dramatic purpose over time. The anthems in The New-England Psalm-Singer are sectionalized to the point where they lack a firm sense of motivated climax. The longer anthems in The Singing Master’s Assistant show improvement over those in The New-England Psalm-Singer, but only in Independence30 does Billings achieve the cohesion and coordination of music, words, and effect that he accomplished in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement.

One of Billings’s particular achievements in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement is his skillful selection and setting of text.31 Although he had tailored and reworked his texts in earlier anthems, the care he shows in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement goes beyond anything he had done earlier. He creatively alters the Biblical text, substituting stronger images and eliminating words that might impede the verbal flow. Words are set carefully to music for maximum musical effect and dramatic continuity. Frequently indulging his fancy for word-painting, Billings does so to underscore the meaning of the words within a larger dramatic plan. He often repeats short phrases several times, not only, as McKay and Crawford note, to “create, implant, or maintain a degree of metrical structure”32 in the prose text, but also to emphasize ideas and images. Text repetition is carefully calculated to heighten musical tension and movement toward a musical climax. The anthem “And I Saw a Mighty Angel”33 is a good example. Its subject is the opening of the Book of Judgment as told in Revelation, Chapter 5. The first third of the anthem, chiefly narrative, proceeds with few phrases of text repeated. In the second section (mm. 100–169), repetition increases as the saints sing of the worthiness of the sacrificial lamb. The final section (mm. 170–257), by far the most repetitive, is a paean of praise consisting chiefly of acclamations, hallelujahs, and Amens.

“Let Ev’ry Mortal Ear Attend” is a good example of how Billings achieves contrast within his anthems while underscoring the meaning of the text. After antiphonal phrases are sung by different sections of the choir, the listener’s attention is abruptly focused on the words, “The Trumpet of the Gospel sounds,” by a short, declamatory section in block chords (mm. 15–17), which prepares for the fugal section to follow. Set to the same words, the fuge is long and contrapuntally complex. During its opening measures the word “sounds” is tossed about against the subject in detached single notes, as if imitating the tones of a trumpet. The exhortation “Hark! Hear the Invitation,” beginning in m. 50, is a bridge between major sections. Alternations between single voices and full chorus, and between exclamations and longer phrases halt the momentum here. But the invitation itself (mm. 59–106) restores it, now in A major rather than the earlier A minor. The section’s pervading contrapuntal texture is enlivened by changes: solos at m. 75 and m. 93; block chords at m. 79 and m. 97; and brief antiphonal exchanges at mm. 71–72 and mm. 85–92. The rest of the piece is declamatory. In it, like a preacher who has come to the crux of his sermon, Billings reduces his rhetoric to its unadorned essentials, repeating words frequently to insure that the point of his discourse is understood by all. Here, as elsewhere in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, through musical contrasts that molded certain words into shapely, lyric melody, buried others in counterpoint, and repeated others in block chords almost to the point of redundancy, Billings composed dramatically unified anthems that conveyed the moral and theological messages of his texts with force and persuasion.


Almost five years passed between the publication of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement and the appearance of Billings’s next tunebook, The Suffolk Harmony, announced as “just published” in Boston’s Independent Chronicle of June 8, 1786.34 A small volume of only fifty-six pages, The Suffolk Harmony contains thirty-two compositions: three anthems, four fuging-tunes, seventeen tunes with extension, and eight plain tunes. Like The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, it lacks a theoretical introduction. The typeset title page announces: “The Suffolk Harmony, consisting of psalm tunes, fuges and anthems, composed by William Billings: author of The Singing Masters Assistant.” The work was engraved and printed by John Norman35 and sold by Billings at his house.

The plain title page of The Suffolk Harmony contrasts sharply with that of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, with its border decorations, variety of lettering styles, and general appearance of energetic gusto. The contrast may have been dictated simply by economics. A fancy engraved title page added to the cost of production. With one page of typeset matter introducing seven eight-page signatures of engraved music, The Suffolk Harmony could presumably have been produced on a tight budget. But the lack of a theoretical introduction precluded the tunebook’s use in the singing school, where the potential for sales was greatest.

Lacking a prefatory statement, The Suffolk Harmony reveals nothing about Billings’s purpose in publishing the volume or the audience to which it was addressed. The only front matter is his own Christmas poem, narrating in ten stanzas the Biblical story of the shepherds’ visit to the manger. The poem, containing typically Billingsian juxtapositions of vernacular and poetic speech, is incongruously laden with massive footnote documentation supporting the poetic allusions with Biblical citations. McKay and Crawford suggest two possible reasons for the references: an attempt to justify the celebration of Christmas, still not accepted in post-Puritan Boston, and “a calculated response to those who had demeaned his literary ability.”36 Several years earlier, Billings had tried his hand at editing The Boston Magazine, a monthly literary journal, but was ousted after only one issue, apparently due to pressure from Boston’s intellectual gentry. “The inclusion of footnotes,” McKay and Crawford suggest, “may have been Billings’s . . . attempt to establish both the scriptural foundation of his verses and his knowledge of the paraphernalia of scholarship.”37

The music in The Suffolk Harmony falls into two distinct sections. Billings stationed the three anthems in the tunebook near the beginning, the middle, and the end of the volume, with the middle one marking the boundary between the two parts. The music between the first anthem, Union, and the second, “Lift Up Your Eyes,” consists of twelve tunes, six of which had been published earlier.38 A seventh tune, Brattle Street, appears to be a variant version of Brest, published in Music in Miniature, now appearing with a new title, reworked counterpoint, and a fuging chorus.39

If the first part of The Suffolk Harmony contains several older pieces, the second emphasizes new music in a new style. Between “Lift Up Your Eyes” and the concluding anthem, “Samuel the Priest,” are fifteen new pieces, of which fourteen are set to texts by James and John Relly. There are no fuging-tunes in this section. All settings are either plain tunes or tunes with extension, and several of the latter are antiphonal. As McKay and Crawford observe, the intimate tone of the Relly verses seems to have moved Billings to write music different from his settings of Watts’s hymns or Brady and Tate’s psalms.40 Accordingly, Billings set them in a style that drew upon the verbal rhythms and poetic imagery of the texts, emphasizing singing melody over independent counterpoint and variety in choral scoring over massive choral effects. Pieces such as Shiloh, Jordan, Camden, Phylanthropy, Burlington, and Moravia not only show a new lyricism in their melodies, but also a heightened sense of dramatic effect in their settings of the words. Nearly a third of the thirty-two compositions in The Suffolk Harmony are set in a verse-and-chorus form which, if not entirely new to Billings, had never before been used by him so often or with such authority.41 The music of The Suffolk Harmony is especially pliant and responsive to verbal accents and textual imagery, each tune becoming almost a madrigal-like set-piece, with words and music combining to form a single artistic whole. McKay and Crawford probably had these traits in mind when they characterized much of the music in The Suffolk Harmony as “lovely part-songs on religious texts.”42

The attention Billings focused on the hymns of one writer, James Relly, sets The Suffolk Harmony apart from his other tunebooks and invites a closer look at the poet. James Relly was a London minister credited with the founding of the Universalist Church.43 Originally a disciple of the Methodist evangelist, George White field, Relly broke with him over doctrinal points regarding free grace and the certainty of salvation. He came to be considered a leading proponent of antinomianism44 and was in constant conflict with both the established church and the Methodists over his beliefs. In 1758 Relly published a volume of poetry entitled Christian Hymns, Poems, and Spiritual Songs, containing ninety-four of his own hymns and twenty-nine by his brother John. The 123 hymns are cast in twenty-six different metrical patterns, some so unusual that they are hardly to be found in other hymnals in English.

Universalism came to America in 1770 through Relly’s disciple, John Murray.45 Although unordained and untutored in theology, Murray engaged in evangelism first in New Jersey and later in New England. In 1773 he arrived in Boston where he preached in private homes, a few churches, and finally in Faneuil Hall, raising much controversy among the clergy over his Universalist doctrines. In 1775 he was appointed chaplain to the Rhode Island militia camped around Boston, and he later founded a church in Gloucester. In 1793 Murray became pastor of the Universalist Society in Boston.

We do not know when or how Billings encountered the poetry of Relly. Perhaps it was through Murray himself, for as a Bostonian involved in religious thought and practice during the time when Murray was creating a stir there, Billings would most likely have been familiar with the new doctrines. Evidence from his own works suggests that Billings welcomed such beliefs. His inquiring mind and penchant for playing freely with Scripture in his music-making may well have attracted him to Murray’s preaching. Billings certainly knew of Relly’s hymns by 1776, for he subscribed to the edition of Relly’s Christian Hymns published in Burlington, New Jersey, in that year.46 Two years later he issued his first setting of a Relly text—Richmond—in The Singing Master’s Assistant.

Billings chose fourteen poems by James Relly and four by John Relly for musical setting, providing music for seventeen of the Rellys’ unusual verse patterns. None of his Relly settings include the ordinary meters of English psalmody, and he omits Hallelujah Meter and three verse patterns having only one poem each.47 Except for Burlington and Mendom, which employ the same poetic meter, each of the other tunes is set to a different meter. This suggests that Billings rather systematically set about composing tunes to which the uncommon metrical patterns of Relly’s verse could be sung, reprinting his four previously published Relly settings in The Suffolk Harmony so as to draw all of these pieces into one collection. In fact, 116 of the 123 hymns in Relly’s volume could be sung to music in The Suffolk Harmony.48 Both in musical style, then, and in the texts that were set—as a companion volume to a hymnal whose doctrine and poetic structure were highly unorthodox—The Suffolk Harmony stood far from the mainstream of psalmody as it was practiced in America on the eve of the Federal Era.

Several aspects of Relly’s verse must have attracted Billings. Foremost perhaps were the unusual meters. Although he had set Particular Meter texts in his earlier tunebooks, the poetry of Watts and Brady and Tate, which predominates in these volumes, offers few verses outside the standard meters of English psalmody.49 Billings occasionally turned to George Whitefield’s collection for texts in uncommon meters,50 but just as often he seems to have written them himself.51 In Relly’s collection, he found a variety of metrical patterns as diverse as any ever published in English hymnody. He also found poetry that offered opportunities for a more varied musical settings than did Watts or Brady and Tate—opportunities which Billings took full advantage of in The Suffolk Harmony.

Billings must also have been attracted to the poetic language of Relly’s verse. Relly’s Christocentric poetry, with its strong images of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ensuing grace to mankind, seems to have struck a responsive chord in Billings. Not only did he set these texts with uncommon attention to prosody and the spirit of the words, he also drew musical gestures directly from their imagery. In Conquest (p. 198), for example, Billings matches the sturdy, march-like quality of the verse with a similar quality in the music. In Glocester (p. 206), after setting the first two lines of text in parallel phrases, he emphasizes the acclamation, “Hail! holy Lamb,” with a phrase in which the musical motion temporarily seems to stop. After two more parallel phrases, Billings shifts the time to 6/4 and the declamation from half-notes to quarters, adding a sense of fervent motion to the cadence, dramatizing the urgency of the words. Billings sometimes attempts to word-paint the text in the music, as in Phylanthropy (p. 186), where the tessitura and direction of the melody reflect the meaning of the words, falling and rising as the text suggests and reaching its lowest range with the words “the lower Parts of Earth.” As McKay and Crawford point out, although in his musical settings of Relly’s verse, Billings

may not have succeeded in every case, the attempt shows again his sensitivity to words. Once drawn to the poetry, perhaps by its intimate, vernacular tone as well as its unusual forms, he gave it a musical treatment that preserves its unusual features.52

Unlike Billings’s previous three tunebooks, which provided them with many tunes to reprint, compilers tended to bypass the music in The Suffolk Harmony. One reason may be that, after a decade-and-a-half of trying, Billings finally succeeded in having some of his music protected by copyright, albeit only in Massachusetts.53 Another reason is that their unusual meters hindered the circulation of many tunes in collections designed with church and singing-school use in mind. A few tunes, such as Conquest and Petersburgh, did have a modest circulation in later collections,54 but only one composition from The Suffolk Harmony gained a firm place in American psalmody in later years. That piece was Jordan, a tune so attractive that it found its way into at least forty-five other tunebooks by 1820 and was one of the few eighteenth-century American tunes to survive the reform movement that swept through American psalmody in the early nineteenth century.55 Lowell Mason and George James Webb included Jordan in their National Psalmist (Boston, 1848), noting that it “has generally been regarded as one of Billings’s best tunes, and was very popular half a century ago.”56

Billings’s stylistic breakthrough in The Suffolk Harmony seems to have attracted few, if any, imitators. Other American psalmodists failed to respond to his compositional lead, preferring either to continue writing in styles of the past, or to yield to the influence of the solo-style psalmody found especially in the Englishman Martin Madan’s “Lock Hospital Collection.”57 There is no evidence that Billings himself followed up on the artistic implications of The Suffolk Harmony. Financial difficulties soon came upon him, and he apparently composed little during the last decade of his life.58 The Continental Harmony (1794), his sixth and final tunebook, published as a charitable act and sponsored by the singing societies of Boston,59 contains music known or suspected to date from the 1770s or early 1780s in a variety of styles. Only a few of its pieces seem related to the type of intimate, integrated musical expression seen in The Suffolk Harmony.60 The Suffolk Harmony represents Billings the composer at his most progressive and original.

Most surviving copies of The Suffolk Harmony have one or more extra pieces bound in at the back. These separately paged items were independently published.61 They may have been added to The Suffolk Harmony by Billings as an inducement for the purchaser to buy a work which, by all available evidence, was not very popular.62 The presence of these extra pieces, some of which were advertised separately between 1787 and 1790,63 suggest that Billings continued to sell The Suffolk Harmony into the 1790s. Being bound inside the stiff board covers of the tunebook preserved these four- and eight-page pamphlets; individual issues of them seem not to have survived.64


Billings published at least nine compositions as parts of independently published pamphlets during the last two decades of the eighteenth century. His earliest composition to appear in this format is the anthem Peace, apparently composed to celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War. The only extant copy bears the inscription, “Ladd’s. Newport. August, 1783,” suggesting that a performance took place in Newport, Rhode Island.65 The others, including four anthems and four tunes, were issued between 1786 and 1795.

As noted earlier, psalmodists used the pamphlet format to publish music for particular occasions quickly and inexpensively. On April 4, 1787, Billings advertised the availability of “An Anthem, composed for Easter Sunday, and a Hymn set to Music, for Good Friday”;66 these pieces, together with Resurrection published in the same pamphlet, provided music for Holy Week observances. On October 16, 1793, the Boston printing firm of Thomas and Andrews advertised the publication of Billings’s anthem, Universal Praise, in time for Thanksgiving Day celebrations that year.67 Billings also publicized the printing of The Bird and The Lark on May 13, 1790, and an expanded version of the Easter Anthem on November 26, 1795, neither of these apparently coordinated with a particular occasion. The anthems to Psalm 47 (“O Clap Your Hands”) and Psalm 127 (“Except the Lord Build the House”) were never advertised for sale but were presumably published sometime between 1786 and 1790.68

Peace is one of Billings’s most substantial and unusual compositions. While Billings’s music was typically composed for unaccompanied choir, Peace, almost alone among his works, contains sections set for instruments without voices.69 Billings does not indicate what instruments he intended in Peace, nor does he specify what the instruments are to do when the voices enter. In later years in some New-England cities and towns, instruments such as the flute, violin, and bass viol (violoncello) are known to have doubled the voices to help singers maintain pitch and support their rhythm, but there is little documentary evidence of instruments being used in the performance of American parish-church anthems as early as 1783.70 The instrumental sections in Peace are written on the same staves as the voices, occasionally occupying the entire four-stave system. Thus, the notation suggests that Billings composed these parts for a band of instruments rather than the organ.71 Except for the twenty-nine-measure introduction, the instrumental sections in Peace are interludes of two to six measures, usually echoing the cadence of the previous choral section, providing contrast as well as respite for the singers.

The text for Peace is a collage—Biblical verses, stanzas of a hymn by Watts, and original lines—that only Billings could have assembled.72 Except for the instrumental sections, the musical structure resembles the anthems he published in The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement: through-composed with homophonic, antiphonal, and fugal sections juxtaposed for maximum musical contrast. Although he never reprinted Peace, Billings did not completely ignore it either. The “Hallelujah” section appeared later, in somewhat expanded form, in Billings’s independently published hymn-tune, Resurrection. The last section, slightly revised, became the conclusion of Billings’s An Anthem for Ordination in The Continental Harmony.73

An Anthem for Easter, published in 1787 along with the fuging-tune Crucifiction for Good Friday and the hymn-tune Resurrection for Easter, stands as one of Billings’s most enduringly popular pieces. From its first publication to the present day, it seems never to have gone out of print.74 The work appeared in two versions published by Billings himself, one advertised in 1787 and the other, with the addition of a newly composed twenty-four-measure section in the middle, issued in 1795. These two versions received at least forty-six printings by 1810 and continued to be reprinted regularly, but frequently with alterations, into the present century.75 This record of longevity is unequalled by any other American-composed anthem of the period.

The words of the Easter Anthem reveal how far Billings was willing to range in his search for texts. In Anglo-American psalmody most anthem texts are Biblical. The Easter Anthem, however, is based chiefly on Edward Young’s The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, a long philosophical poem that won considerable popularity during the eighteenth century.76 Billings’s fondness for intermixing hymn verses—usually from Watts or his own poetry—and Biblical prose is well known. But never before or after did he reach so far outside his usual orbit for a sacred text. The lines he chose from Young’s poem are not even consecutive, being reordered by Billings to tell the story in his own way. Beginning with line 271 in the fourth section (or “Night” as the poet called the poem’s parts), Billings set only eight of the next thirty lines to music. He prefaced these with two short Biblical verses drawn from Luke 24:34 and I Corinthians 15:20 to construct a text which succinctly tells of man’s concurrent triumph with his risen Lord.

The Easter Anthem is a straightforward, uncomplicated piece, built from contrasting statements by reduced chorus and full chorus, and never straying from the key of A. Its text and music proved precisely the right combination for American singers, who quickly made it by far the favorite anthem in the entire eighteenth-century Anglo-American repertory.77 Billings himself, however, seems to have reaped little reward from the success of the Easter Anthem and publicly registered his chagrin that others had profited from his labor. On November 26, 1795, he advertised a new version with an added section.78 Then, on April 6, 1797, he addressed the following remarkable statement to the public:

Thomas and Holden, have published the piece in their Collections, without the addition, and I am credibly informed, that their Collections did not sell the worse for it, and as I own the Vineyard and have done all the labor in it myself—I beg the Community to grease the Rollers of the Press, so as to enable me to eat some of the Fruit thereof, viz.

Be so kind as to buy a large Number of ANTHEMS, and give me 1s6 each, and in so doing, you will much oblige the real Owner.


Billings’s revision of 1795 adds a section between the third and fourth sections of the original version. The new text also came from Young’s “Night Thoughts,” immediately preceding the words of the fourth section. While Billings’s advertisement gives a financial reason for the anthem’s revision, he may also have judged that the progression of ideas in the first version, from Christ’s Resurrection in the third section to man’s resurrection in the fourth, was too abrupt. The added lines provide a smoother transition of thought and a more convincing sequence of events. The new text also allowed Billings to add a contrasting texture to the anthem; the new section introduces a long fugato, with melismatic word-painting on the words “whose Nature then took Wing.”

The new section may have improved the artistic quality of the anthem, but its technical difficulties—the fugal entries, melismatic flourishes, and rhythmic complications—placed the revised version beyond the capacities of many American choristers of the day. Thus the revised version seems not to have shared in the popularity of the original. It appeared, for example, in the fifth edition of The Village Harmony (Exeter, 1800), replacing the earlier version which had been in the fourth edition (1798). But the first version returned in the sixth edition, and it was this version, not the revised one, that won such wide and enduring circulation.80

Billings’s other independently published pieces failed to catch public attention. The anthems “O Clap Your Hands” and “Except the Lord Build the House,” are found only in Billings’s original issues, bound in with The Suffolk Harmony. Some copies of The Suffolk Harmony include two other works: a fuging-tune called The Bird and a hymn-tune called The Lark.81 They were advertised for sale by Billings in Boston’s Independent Chronicle on May 13, 1790:

New Music. Just Published, two Pieces, intitled The Bird and the Lark. The Author supposes the Airs to be Original: Said Pieces are sold, by William Billings, the Author.82

Why Billings felt it necessary to advertise the “Airs” as “Original” is unknown. McKay and Crawford suggest that “he may have recalled the melodies from aural memory and merely supplied them with harmonic dress.”83 Another explanation is that perhaps Billings wrote them down long before they were published and could not remember in 1790 whether he had actually composed them. A manuscript copy of the last part of The Bird is bound in with Daniel Bayley’s The American Harmony (Newburyport, 1773)84 at the New York Public Library. The manuscript, consisting of tenor and bass parts only, reveals an awkwardness in prosody resembling the anthems and some psalm-tunes in The New-England Psalm-Singer.85 This trait, coupled with its presence in a tunebook bound in its original covers and carrying a purchase date of 1773,86 strongly suggests that The Bird was composed at least seventeen years before it saw print.


Almost all of Billings’s music was first printed in his own tunebooks. He apparently did not respond to such general invitations as that issued by Isaiah Thomas in 1792, for “such gentlemen as wish to furnish new Tunes for [a new edition of The Worcester Collection] to leave them at I. Thomas’s Bookstore, in Worcester by the 20th of August next.”87 Some composers, including Oliver Holden, Elias Mann, and Jacob Kimball, published their new tunes not only in their own tunebooks, but in the collections of others as well. Not so Billings. When a previously unpublished piece attributed to him appears in a tunebook by another compiler, it can be accepted as authentic only after careful scrutiny. Among the questions that must be asked are: Is its style consistent with Billings’s other works? Is the publisher or compiler known to have had personal contact with Billings? Is there reason to believe that the publisher or compiler might have attributed to Billings a piece by another composer? Was the piece published in Billings’s own day and locale, or in a time and place removed from his? Is the new work an altered version of a known Billings piece and, if so, is there evidence that Billings was responsible for the revision? Some of Billings’s music was extremely popular, and his name was well known. Its presence on a piece was surely an endorsement to some singers. While most compilers seem to have tried to supply accurate attributions, some may have attached Billings’s name to pieces he did not compose through supposition, misinformation, or even through deliberate misrepresentation.

Especially in the 1770s, when domestic unrest and war stood in the way of publication, Billings appears to have been rather free in allowing copies of his music to circulate in manuscript. The “Advertisement” in The Singing Master’s Assistant,88 in which Billings asked his “Musical friends” to correct their copies of tunes published there, suggests that the practice of making copies for personal use was both common and widespread. Perhaps Billings tried out new tunes in his singing schools, both to hear how they sounded and to introduce his students to certain performance problems. Some tunes, perhaps through manuscript circulation, were published by other compilers in versions different from the ones Billings himself published.89 Some pieces remained in manuscript, never appearing in print at all.90 Since the manuscript copies of Billings’s pieces that so far have come to light seem not to be in his hand,91 attributions to him must be assessed with great care.

The pieces in Appendices I and II in this volume, all found in published or manuscript sources, were either never published by Billings or appeared in versions different from those in his own tunebooks. They resemble Billings’s other compositions in style, and many are variant versions of pieces he did publish. Most of the published pieces were issued in Billings’s own day by compilers or publishers he knew personally. It is not known whether Billings himself actually made the variant versions of his tunes that appear in print or manuscript. Although most are skillfully done, there is no way to be certain of Billings’s involvement. Nevertheless, after careful examination and consideration, the editor believes that the pieces in Appendices I and II are either by Billings92 or that they are clearly enough related to pieces by him to deserve a place in his complete works.

Printed Sources

Five pieces in Appendix I were neither published by Billings nor are they variant versions of his published pieces: Hatfield, Mansfield, Plymouth New, Sheffield, and Union. Mansfield and Union, however, were issued during Billings’s day by Boston publishers who had had personal contact with him,93 and both are consistent with his musical style. Plymouth New was published by Billings’s former student, Jacob French,94 who had earlier issued some of Billings’s tunes in variant versions in his The Psalmodist’s Companion (Worcester, 1793); it also appears in the Waterhouse manuscript of 1782 attributed to “WB.”95 Hatfield was published in two different four-voiced versions, first in Nehemiah Shumway’s The American Harmony (Philadelphia, 1793) and then in the posthumous edition of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement (n.p., ca. 1804), and finally in a version for three voices in Jeremiah Ingalls’s The Christian Harmony (Exeter, 1805), under the title The True Penitent. Both Ingalls and the compiler of the posthumous edition of The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement credited the work to Billings, and, indeed, Hatfield does resemble several Billings tunes, including Queen Street (NEPS), Exeter and Worcester (SMA), and Thomas-Town and West-Sudbury (CH).

The one tune in the group for which the attribution remains questionable is Sheffield, credited to Billings only in Jonathan Huntington’s The Apollo Harmony (Northampton, 1807). Appearances in Ebenezer Child’s The Sacred Musician (Boston, 1804) and Freeman Lewis’s The Beauties of Harmony (Pittsburgh, 1814) are anonymous, and an earlier copy in Aaron Cowling’s manuscript tune book, The American Harmony (1798), is also uncredited.96 The form of the tune is unique to Billings’s works: a double fuging-tune with fuges on the second and fourth phrases.97 Furthermore, the tune lacks traits that one expects in a Billings melody, being restricted to a narrow range and a rhythmic motion mostly in quarter-notes. However, the attribution cannot be disproven,98 and since it was published within seven years of Billings’s death and not far from Boston, it seems more prudent to include it in Appendix I, with an expression of doubt, than to exclude it.

Some music by Billings was published in versions that vary, sometimes considerably, from the ones he published himself. Pieces such as Kittery, which first appeared in Oliver Brownson’s Select Harmony ([Connecticut], 1783), seem to have been published from manuscript versions that had been revised by the time Billings issued the tunes himself.99 Others, such as Barry in Jacob French’s The Psalmodist’s Companion (Worcester, 1793), are variant versions of pieces Billings published in The New-England Psalm-Singer but never republished himself. These pieces were revised to eliminate infelicities, just as Billings did with other compositions from The New-England Psalm-Singer that he republished in The Singing Master’s Assistant.100 Whether Billings made these changes himself cannot be determined, but they are skillfully done, suggesting that they may be his revisions.

A third type of variant in the published sources begins with a known Billings tune, which, through the application of passing tones, changes in meter, key, and rhythm, and sometimes even newly composed phrases, is transformed into quite a different composition, often with a new title as well.101 The process of taking an earlier tune and recasting it to form a new one is discussed in the editor’s article, “William Billings’s Music in Manuscript Copy and Some Notes on Variant Versions of his Pieces.”102 A summary of the evidence is given here to show why these pieces deserve to be included in Billings’s Complete Works.103

Two types of variants are involved here: ornamental and compositional. Ornamental variants are those that keep the basic structure of the tune, altering only details of rhythm, meter, and counterpoint, and add passing tones and other decorative figures to embellish the melody. Compositional variants, on the other hand, introduce new music: a new phase, for example, substituted for an old one, or a new section, such as a fuge, added. Compositional variants may also include changes in meter, rhythm, counterpoint, or melodic decoration, of the kind found in ornamental variants. The following example shows how the melody of Waltham, published in The Singing Master’s Assistant, was made into Bedford, found in Sacred Harmony (Boston, ca. 1788).104

Example 1

Except for the third phrase (bracketed in Example I), the tune of Bedford follows closely that of Waltham. However, the key of Bedford—it is set in A major—coupled with its new time signature, its new title, and changes in accompanying voices have altered it so that even a chorister who had sung Waltham might not have recognized it as Bedford.

Billings varied in the same way some of the tunes he published himself. For example, Asia from The New-England Psalm-Singer was altered to produce the first half of Cobham, published in The Continental Harmony.105 Brest in Music in Miniature and Brattle Street in The Suffolk Harmony are another pair in which the latter seems to have been derived from the former.106 In fact, seven tunes published in The New-England Psalm-Singer and Music in Miniature have been identified as sources for pieces that Billings published later.107 Thus, the present attribution of Bedford and St. Vincent’s to Billings, although they do not bear his name in Sacred Harmony, is supported by evidence of a similar process of variation carried on in his own works.

Manuscript Sources for Billings’s Music

Manuscript copies of Billings’s music may be found on the covers and flyleaves of printed tunebooks, in hand-copied supplements bound with these collections, and in collections hand-copied by some chorister or singing-school student. Because Billings was a popular composer and his music was printed in many tunebooks of his day, the sources from which such copies could be made were many. Most of the music by Billings found in manuscript varies from the printed sources only in small details. Occasionally, however, more significant alterations in the melody or accompanying parts are found, or even sections absent from the printed versions.108 Such deviations are probably what Billings was referring to in the “Advertisement” in The Singing Master’s Assistant when he asked that his “Musical friends in the Country,” who had “taken Copies from this work . . . kindly submit former copies to this Publication, which has been corrected and amended.”109

Eight manuscripts supply the music included in Appendix II of this volume. They are listed as follows, with identifying sigla in brackets.110

  1. 1. A manuscript entitled “Sukey Heath’s 1st July 1782 Collection from Sundry Authors” in the possession of Mrs. Dorothy Waterhouse, Boston, Massachusetts. [Waterhouse Ms]111
  2. 2. A manuscript supplement to Billings’s The Singing Master’s Assistant in the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. [MiU-C Ms 2]
  3. 3. A manuscript supplement to Billings’s The New-England Psalm-Singer in the William L. Clements Library. [MiU-C Ms 1]
  4. 4. Musical additions to a manuscript orderly book written by Eleazer Everett at Francestown, New Hampshire (1780) in the William L. Clements Library. [MiU-C Ms 3]
  5. 5. A manuscript supplement to Daniel Bayley’s The American Harmony (Newburyport, 1773) in the Americana Collection, Music Division, New York Public Library. [NN Ms]
  6. 6. A manuscript of Billings’s music, called the “Shepard Fish” manuscript, in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. [MHi Ms]
  7. 7. A manuscript supplement to Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained (Boston, 1746) in the Watkinson Library of Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. [CtHT-W Ms]
  8. 8. A manuscript tunebook, entitled The Northwestern Harmony, compiled by W. C[ouch]112 in the Special Collections Library of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. [RPB Ms]

None of the eight manuscripts is in Billings’s hand.113 It is possible that the Waterhouse Ms and MiU-C Ms 2 were copied by Billings’s students at one of his singing schools; others, such as MiU-C Ms 3 and the RPB Ms, probably had no direct connection with him.114 For the rest, there is no way to know whether they might have come directly from him or were taken from other manuscript copies.

Like the published tunes that never appeared in Billings’s own tunebooks, the compositions in manuscript collections may be divided into categories: those attributed to Billings, and those that, though unattributed, are variant versions of pieces he did compose. Three of the five attributed pieces are found in the Waterhouse Ms credited to “WB.”115 Billings signed himself “WB” on several occasions in The New-England Psalm-Singer, and, since these initials are also attached to several tunes in the Waterhouse Ms that Billings is known to have composed,116 there seems little doubt that the copyist intended to ascribe the unpublished tunes to him also. The Waterhouse Ms has been traced to Brookline, Massachusetts, during the early 1780s,117 a period when Billings in nearby Boston seems to have been extremely active;118 therefore, the accuracy of the attributions seems solid.

The anthem, “Praise the Lord, O My Soul,” is ascribed to “WB” in the NN manuscript. All of the other pieces in the manuscript are by Billings—tunes that he had published earlier in The New-England Psalm-Singer or later in The Singing Master’s Assistant.119 The anthem shows the same difficulties with prosody found in all of the anthems in The New-England Psalm-Singer,120 and the final eighteen measures, consisting of the text “Hallelujah, Amen,” are handled in the same way as the final section of “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” published there.121 Thus both stylistic evidence and its appearance in a collection devoted entirely to Billings’s works support the attribution to him.

The attribution of Raleigh to Billings in The Northwestern Harmony mmtbe considered at best questionable. The manuscript was compiled at least fifteen years after Billings’s death,122 and no earlier printed or manuscript copy of the tune has been found. The use of “continuing notes” in the treble and bass is a device that Billings seldom employed,123 making the attribution even more tenuous. However, the setting, except for the continuing notes, resembles other Billings tunes, such as North River and Revelation,124 and since it cannot be traced to another composer, it is included in Appendix II, with reservations, as possibly by Billings.

Some manuscript compositions, such as Hallifax and Hadley, appear to be early versions of pieces Billings published later in revised form.125 A comparison between manuscript and printed settings reveals in the latter more incisive rhythms, closer alignment of verbal and musical accents, and refinements in the accompanying parts, strongly suggesting that the manuscript copies preceded them. Other pieces employ the same techniques of variation and ornamentation as the published variants (see above, p. xxxii).126 It is not known whether Billings himself was responsible for the variants in the manuscripts, but since they are clearly based on his pieces, they are included in Appendix II.

The Arrangements

The only music by other composers that Billings published are ten British psalm-tunes and Royalston by Abraham Wood, all found in Music in Miniature. This book, a tune supplement to a metrical psalter, was designed for congregational singing, and the inclusion of familiar tunes surely helped to broaden its appeal.127 Since the melodies were not composed by Billings, they were omitted from Volume II of this edition.128 However, a close examination of the British psalm-tunes has revealed that they correspond to no earlier published version of these pieces. In all cases, the treble and counter voices differ from earlier versions, and often the bass and even the tenor melody are significantly altered. These, then, appear to be Billings’s own arrangements and, as such, deserve a place in his complete works.

Music in Miniature seems to have been modelled on Daniel Bayley’s The Essex Harmony (Newburyport, 1770 and later issues). The title pages of both tune supplements have similar Chippendale borders, the same general layout, and some identical text.129 Moreover, all of the pieces Billings borrowed appear in The Essex Harmony, a situation found in no other psalm-tune collection Billings might have used.130 Bayley’s tune supplement printed versions of these tunes that had circulated in the American colonies with little or no change for many years. Billings apparently took the melody and bass voices from Bayley, occasionally altering them a bit. In all cases, however, he added his own treble and counter voices. The following example of William Tans’ur’s St. Martin’s demonstrates some of the differences between Billings’s setting and the one published by Bayley.

Example 2

In Bayley’s version, Tans’ur’s original setting was adapted by merely omitting the original treble part. Except for being transposed a whole-tone lower, Bayley’s version is identical with the counter, tenor, and bass parts of Tans’ur’s own printing in his The Royal Melody Compleat (London, 1755). Billings’s treble part differs significantly from Tans’ur’s, particularly in the latter half, which is much more florid. While Tans’ur’s setting, with its succession of trio and quartet textures, may have its own points of musical interest when contrasted with Billings’s consistent four parts, Billings’s version is better adapted for congregational singing.

In some cases, Billings altered the traditional melody by omitting ornamental tones, as seen in Isle of Wight (Example 3).131

Example 3

In others, such as Portsmouth, he altered the note values (Example 4).

Example 4

In five of the ten tunes, Billings transposed the pitch higher than Bayley’s version.132 Besides changing the time signature of Portsmouth from 3/2 to 3/4, Billings also changed those of Bangor, Isle of Wight, Old Hundred, and St. Ann’s from the second mood of Common Time to the first mood, effecting a slower tempo.133 Six of Bayley’s settings are for three voices only, and a seventh tune is set for just two.134 Thus, if Billings did use Bayley’s The Essex Harmony as the source of the borrowed pieces, he would have had to supply at least the missing treble voice. More than this, however, Billings seems to have set about improving the counterpoint in his borrowed tunes. While the congregations probably sang only the melody, choirs sang in parts, and in this way Billings arranged the tunes so that they were better suited for performance in public worship, the purpose for which Music in Miniature was intended.


The musical style of William Billings is based upon practices that arose and flourished in English country parish churches during the middle third of the eighteenth century. Parish-church composers, such as William Tans’ur, William Knapp, Joseph Stephenson, and Aaron Williams, created a repertory of psalm-tunes, fuging-tunes, and anthems adapted to the needs of the country church choir. Country churches had no organs or trained musicians, and the choirs sang their music unaccompanied or with the support of musicians in the parish who played “bass viol,” bassoon, violin, or clarinet along with the singers.

The tunebooks of English parish-church composers were imported into the American colonies during the 1750s and 1760s, where tunes such as Knapp’s All Saints, Tans’ur’s St. Martin’s, Stephenson’s Psalm 34, and Williams’s Putney gained great popularity and were widely reprinted in tunebooks by American compilers. They also served as models for American composers to learn the parish-church style of composition.135 American composers of psalmody took the styles, techniques, and forms they found in the English tunebooks and adapted them to their own musical needs. But they did not merely copy the English parish-church style. They responded enthusiastically to its expressive potential and used its technical resources more individually than did their English counterparts.

William Billings was a leader in this development. More, perhaps, than any other American psalmodist, Billings explored the technical and expressive possibilities of the parish-church style. Unlike most English psalmodists and many Americans, who seem to have composed generalized melodies suited to any number of texts, Billings drew inspiration from the meaning and rhythms of the words he set, fitting them closely to his music. His music has a fluency of melody and ingenuity of counterpoint greater than that of most other parish-church composers of the time.

Billings’s music falls into three stylistic groupings: the early style of The New-England Psalm-Singer; the parish-church style of The Singing Master’s Assistant, Music in Miniature, The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement, and most of The Continental Harmony; and a more lyric style of The Suffolk Harmony and a few pieces in The Continental Harmony. The early style, discussed in the “Introduction” to Volume I of this edition,136 follows closely the English models of Tans’ur, Williams, Knapp, and Stephenson. It is obvious from the music in The New-England Psalm-Singer that Billings was still learning his craft as a composer, but in spite of difficulties with counterpoint, prosody, and rhythmic flow, some pieces in this tunebook show Billings’s imagination and originality clearly.

In The Continental Harmony, Billings wrote: “Although I am not confined to rules prescribed by others, yet I come as near as I possibly can to a set of rules which I have carved out for myself.”137 Although he never codified or set down his “rules” in print, an analysis of Billings’s music reveals a kinship between them and the Rules for Composition found in several of William Tans’ur’s publications.138 Certainly, Billings broke Tans’ur’s rules when it suited his purposes, but on the whole, he seems to have followed them fairly closely.

Tans’ur’s rules deal with basic, consonant, melodic motion between two parts, expanded in later sections to cover three, four, and eventually eight parts. They also cover the use of discords as well as canon and fuge. Except for The Royal Melody Compleat (London, 1755), from which Billings borrowed some ideas and text for his theoretical introduction to The New-England Psalm-Singer, we do not know which, if any, of Tans’ur’s other works Billings actually saw. The following are the Rules for Composition that Tans’ur gave in The Royal Melody Compleat.139

Rule I.

When one Part stands on a Sound, and another Part moves, the moving part may leap to any Sound that is Concord to the standing Part.

Rule II.

Two Fifths, or two Eighths, are not to be taken together neither rising nor falling, unless covered by a higher part; or one be the minor and the other the major fifth.

Rule III.

You may take as many Thirds, Fifths, or Eighths, as you please together standing.

Rule IV.

You may take as many Thirds, or Sixes, as you please, rising or falling, together, if one be the Minor, and the other the Major: but a Consecution of Majors are not in the Laws of Harmony.

Rule V.

When one Part ascends, and another Part descends, gradually, you must make a transition of quicker notes to bind in the Discords.

Rule VI.

When one Part moves upwards, and another Part moves downwards, both by Leaps, you may move to any Concord you please.

Rule VII.

When Discords are taken, they may take place by regular Transition, by way of Pass; or be bound in before Concords.

Rule VIII.

Whensoever you make a final close, or Conclusion, your Bass must always rise a Fourth, or fall a Fifth, to end in the proper Key.

Rule IX.

Whensoever you would form a Fuge, first prick down your Point, or Portion of Fuging-Notes, to the Part you intend and then fill up your vacant Places with such Descant as is agreeable to your Point by the Rules of Composition.

Rule X.

Observe, that you never begin a composition with a Sixth; and let all Parts end in full Harmony in a proper Key.

Rules I, III, IV, and VI cover the major types of melodic motion: oblique, similar, and contrary. Rule II covers parallel fifths and octaves. It is noteworthy that they are not entirely forbidden, but allowed if covered by a higher part. Rules V and VII cover discords, both as passing tones and as suspensions (i.e., “bound in before Concords”).140 Rule IX covers fugal counterpoint, relating it to the rules of melodic motion. The only suggestion of a harmonic procedure is found in Rule VIII, where Tans’ur prescribes bass movement from the dominant to the tonic tones at the final cadence.

Billings’s application of these rules within the system of major and minor scales of eighteenth-century tonality accounts for the unusual-sounding harmonic progressions and static harmony occasionally found in his compositions. The contrapuntal conjunction of melodic lines determines chord sequences, and such progressions as tonic to mediant and dominant to subdominant are perfectly within the rules of composition so long as the voice-leading follows the rules. Vertical sounds need not always be linked in standard harmonic “progressions” in Anglo-American psalmody, any more than they are in Renaissance choral music.

One of Billings’s compositional principles was to give each vocal part an interesting line to sing. In The Continental Harmony he wrote that “the grand difficulty in composition, is to preserve the air through each part separately, and yet cause them to harmonize with each other at the same time.”141 By “air,” Billings apparently meant the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the tune, which the other parts were to share insofar as they were able.142 When, in The Singing Master’s Assistant, Billings revised tunes from The New-England Palm-Singer, he extended rhythmic and melodic motives of the tenor “air” to the other voice-parts. In Marblehead, for example, Billings seized every available opportunity to spread the tune’s dotted quarter-, eighth-, and half-note motion throughout the other voices.143

Although based on counterpoint and apparently following Tans’ur’s rules rather closely, Billings’s harmony was by no means haphazard. Most of his chord connections are strong and purposeful, giving a sense of propulsion to his music. To be sure, he seldom observes such niceties of tonal harmony as the deceptive cadence or the I64 – V – I cadential formula. But on the whole, at least from 1778 on, Billings’s music can seldom be faulted for meandering harmonic progressions.

Most of Billings’s chords appear in root position, with first inversion used chiefly to provide a smoother vocal line in the bass. Although root movement by fourths and fifths is fairly common, root movement by seconds and thirds is more frequent than one finds in standard thoroughbass harmony. Passing seventh-chords between beats, and in root position, far outnumber seventh-chords on the beat. Except for the first chord of a work and occasional cadential chords, Billings usually used complete triads. Perhaps because his singers had trouble tuning the third, Billings frequently began a tune with open fifths, going to a full triad on the next chord. This is particularly true in the minor key, where tuning of the minor third may have been especially hard. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, for cadence chords. In the major key, cadence chords are usually complete triads, but in the minor key they often lack the third. Occasional passing chords within a phrase may also be incomplete in the interests of good voice-leading, but these are exceptional.

Modulations in Billings’s music are rare. Only four of his works contain changes of key signature that are actually changes of key center, rather than mode: the set-piece Rutland,144 and the anthems “Lift Up Your Eyes,”145 Variety Without Method,146 and An Anthem for Ordination.147 The absence of modulation in psalm-and fuging-tunes may be explained by their brevity. In a tune of fifteen measures, or even thirty, the time for a musically effective key change is insufficient. It is harder to account for the unwavering persistence of single key centers in longer works, however, except to note that Billings and other psalmodists had little experience with modulation. As masters of smaller forms, the psalmodists tended to write anthems by placing several short, independent sections side by side. Juxtaposing sections that differed in melody, meter, texture, dynamics, even mode, they left modulation unexplored as a source of further contrast. Even in his psalm- and fuging-tunes, however, Billings made full use of the tonal resources of the tonic key. Many of his minor-key tunes contain a phrase or two in the relative major.148 A number of his major-key tunes briefly visit the dominant.149 In Music in Miniature, six major-mode tunes emphasize the relative minor, a key area upon which Billings had not previously focused and which he would rarely stress later.150 Billings’s later publications tend, more than his earlier ones, to take this broader approach to key, but in a substantial number of his tunes the same key center is maintained throughout.151

While the elements of Billings’s style outlined above hold for music he published in his first four tunebooks, The Suffolk Harmony points in new directions. In his earlier tunebooks, Billings had employed a contrapuntal style emphasizing the melodic and rhythmic independence of the voices.152 The tenor and treble, in particular, often vie for the listener’s attention as the principal melody. Most of Billings’s popular pieces, such as America, Bethlehem, Brookfield, Chester, Majesty, and Suffolk in The Singing Master’s Assistant, exemplify this style, which may also be seen in Brattle Street, Brattle Square, and Wheeler’s Point in The Suffolk Harmony. Here the harmony seems a by-product of the counterpoint. Except at cadences, chord progressions occur that would seldom be found in the thoroughbass harmony of the day.153 The harmonic rhythm is usually quite fast, with chord changes occurring almost every beat and sometimes even every half-beat. The same harmony is seldom held for the length of a measure, cadences again excepted, and almost never extends from one measure into the next.

A number of pieces in The Suffolk Harmony, however, follow more closely the functional tonal harmony of the day than the contrapuntal procedures of the Anglo-American parish style. Petersburgh, for example, begins with a four-measure phrase on the tonic followed by a parallel phrase on the dominant. The next phrase alternates tonic first-inversion and subdominant triads, and the rest of the tune follows similar tonal procedures. Other tunes showing a like-minded approach to harmony are Shiloh, Hartford, Jordan, Restoration, Moriah, West Boston, Jerusalem, Conquest, Glocester, Chelsea, Burlington, and Moravia. In line with their slower harmonic rhythm and the establishment of harmonic plateaus, these tunes also show less independence in their counterpoint. The principal melody, still in the tenor voice, retains the sweep and fluency of earlier Billings tunes, but the other voices act more as accompaniment than as independent, competing melodies. The counter and bass often repeat their pitches, while the melodic range and rhythmic independence of the treble is severely limited.

Choral scoring also distinguishes the music in The Suffolk Harmony from Billings’s earlier works. In nine tunes antiphony is found, with a phrase being set for fewer than four voices and answered either by the full chorus or by voices previously silent.154 Jordan, for example, opens with three voice-parts singing, followed by all four for the next two phrases, then a phrase set for two voices, and ending with the full four-voice chorus. In Camden, the first half of the tune consists of a series of duet phrases followed by a four-part chorus. Unlike his earlier tunes in this form, such as ASHFORD in The New-England Psalm-Singer and Stockbridge in The Singing Master’s Assistant, which seem rather mechanical in their antiphonal answerings, Camden seems to flow naturally through its duets, reaching a musical and textual climax on the words, “his Glory wears,” when all parts join together for the first time. In Burlington, perhaps Billings’s most unusually scored psalm-tune, the texture during the first twenty-four measures varies continually between two, three, and four voices, ending with a four-part chorus which caps the emotional climax of the words. Billings had employed antiphonal scoring before,155 but rarely had he used it so imaginatively to elicit from singers an attentiveness and personal involvement that could be expected to intensify the expressiveness of the performance.

In Billings’s publications after The Suffolk Harmony, his third style is found only in a few pieces: the Easter Anthem and The Lark, among the independent publications, and Cross Street, Hopkinton, Lewis-Town, South-Boston, and the anthem Universal Praise in The Continental Harmony.156 This fact supports the belief that Billings composed little in the years after The Suffolk Harmony appeared. The music in The Continental Harmony, his only tunebook of the 1790s, favors the parish-church style that he had mastered during the 1770s.157 After The Continental Harmony, Billings published only the Easter Anthem with the added section. His last known composition, “A Piece on the Death of Washington 1799,”158 was apparently never published and is lost. Taken as a whole, Billings’s music shows his progression from a gifted novice (NEPS), to a master of the prevailing parish-church style (SMA, MM, PSA), to an explorer seeking to refine that style for new expressive ends (SH), to an elder statesman, offering a retrospective compendium of his creative achievements (CH).


As stated in Volume I of this edition (pp. lviii–lix), The Complete Works of William Billings began as a personal project of Hans Nathan, who developed general editorial policy for the entire set in editing Volume II. Some flexibility has been observed in succeeding volumes to take into account the idiosyncracies of each of Billings’s tunebooks, but for general editorial criteria, the user is referred to the introduction to Volume II (reprinted in this volume on pp. xlix–lii).

For compositions published by Billings himself, his print is considered to be the authoritative version. The one exception is the fuging-tune Assurance, published in The Worcester Collection, 3d ed., (Boston, 1791), in a version slightly revised from Billings’s own printing—a version authorized in writing by Billings himself. The Worcester Collection version is printed here. Differences between the two versions and evidence that the later print incorporates Billings’s latest intentions are given in the critical commentary. Corrections and interpretations of Billings’s notation appear in the critical commentary for each work.

Compositions that Billings did not print himself have been checked against an unpublished melodic index of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American tunes and anthems compiled by Richard Crawford. Where the attribution of a work to Billings could not be disproved, and the work seemed consistent with Billings’s style, it has been included in Appendix I or II of this volume, depending upon whether the source is a print or manuscript. For a few tunes appearing in several sources, details have been compared and the clearest source has been chosen as primary. Differences from other copies are noted in the critical commentary.

Several works are included because they appear to be variant versions of known Billings works. Criteria for considering a work a variant are discussed above (see pp. xxxii–xxxiii), and while it is uncertain whether Billings himself made all the alterations, it seemed more prudent to be inclusive than exclusive when deciding the contents of Appendices I and II.

The purpose of this edition is to present the music and text for performance and study as clearly and accurately as possible, according to present-day editorial and notational standards. 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 of the psalm-tunes in Appendix III, used by Billings to mark the poetic meter, have not been retained. Verbal directions for the repetition of certain sections in some anthems have not been retained, and these sections have been written out in full.

Certain symbols used by Billings have lost their meaning today, and modern equivalents have been substituted. Billings indicated the repetition of a phrase or section by placing the sign :S: over the first and last notes of the part to be repeated. In this edition the standard symbol, the dotted double bar, is used. Occasionally, repeat signs have had to be repositioned and first and second endings added to correct the notation. Such alterations are noted in the critical commentary. Billings employed the alto C-clef for his counter voice. Here it has been transcribed into the treble clef. The tenor voice in Billings’s original is notated in the treble clef, but with the understanding that it should sound an octave lower. The octavating treble clef has been used throughout this edition.

In eighteenth-century psalmody, it is not uncommon to find a group of repeated notes under a slur. Billings seems to have used this notational device for two purposes: as a substitute for a tie in which the repeated notes should be sung as a continuous sound, and as a vocal ornament in which each note should be articulated. The determining factors in interpretation are the length of the note values involved and the availability of alternate notational symbols. The tie substitute usually involves half- and whole-notes with one or more bar lines intervening, or smaller note values within a longer melisma for which no single notational symbol is available (e.g., a note length of five eighth-notes). Occasionally, it is also used to correct an engraving error. The vocal ornament usually involves smaller note values, such as quarter- and eighth-notes, for which a larger note value was available had Billings wanted a continuous sound. That he did not use the alternate symbol seems to imply that he had intended each note under the slur to be articulated. This vocal ornament is often used as a motive, passing from voice to voice several times in a section. A note has been made in the critical commentary for repeated notes under a slur that are to be articulated, but ties between individual notes have been supplied without comment when the repeated notes are considered to be continuous sounds.

Ties that appear between only the upper or lower notes of diads (or choosing notes) in the individual voices are assumed to apply to the other notes as well and are supplied without comment.

By the 1780s, Billings was usually both careful and consistent in applying accidentals to his music. However, in certain places he seems to have overlooked an accidental sign, or the notational conventions of his day required none. In such cases, accidentals have been supplied editorially and are noted in the critical commentary. Occasionally, Billings supplied accidentals that are unnecessary by modern notational standards. They have been tacitly omitted from this edition. Billings sometimes used a sharp sign to raise the pitch of a note flatted by the key signature. In such cases, a natural sign has been substituted without comment. In a few instances, where Billings’s published version included an accidental not found in a printed or manuscript variant, the accidental has been included above the note in the manner of musica ficta in modern editions of Renaissance music. It may be performed or not at the performers’ discretion.

In some pieces, performance directions such as “Forte,” “Vigoroso,” &c. are surrounded by parentheses; in this edition, such parentheses have been tacitly omitted.

In 6/4 time, Billings used two dotted half-notes tied together to indicate the length of a dotted whole-note. (He used the dotted whole-note, however, in 3/2 time.) In this edition the dotted whole-note has been tacitly substituted. Similarly, in 6/8 time, Billings notated the dotted half-note by employing two dotted quarter-notes tied. In such cases, the dotted half-note has been used instead.

Criteria outlined by Hans Nathan in the introduction to Volume II for the selection, spelling, and underlay of texts have been followed here. Except for the ten British psalm-tunes that he published in Music in Miniature, printed in Appendix III, Billings provided texts or text incipits for all the music in this volume that he published himself. Where tunes attributable to Billings in other printed or manuscript collections lack a text, one has been supplied here according to Nathan’s criteria. For the British psalm-tunes, an effort has been made to choose texts from earlier American printings of the tune. If there was no earlier American printing with a text, an earlier British one known to have circulated in America (such as tunes in the tunebooks of William Tans’ur and Aaron Williams) was consulted. If neither an earlier American nor British collection printed a text with the tune, the text was added from a later but still contemporaneous American collection.

In second and succeeding stanzas of text, left margins have been justified and the first letters of each line capitalized. Following eighteenth-century practice, the first letters of nouns have been capitalized. Billings’s own occasional capitalizations of the first letters of pronouns, adjectives, verbs, &c., have not been retained, except when they refer to the Deity.

Where words such as “Saviour” and “glorious” are spelled with a contraction (e.g., “Sav’our,” “glor’ous”), the missing letter has been restored and the apostrophe omitted; however, when restoration of the omitted letter would affect the pronunciation of the word, occasional contractions have been retained.

The use of the ampersand for “and” is common in Billings’s own publications. In all cases, “and” has been spelled out and the ampersand omitted without comment.

When “ye” has been used as an abbreviation for “the,” the latter has been tacitly substituted. However, when “ye” is used as a variant form of “you,” it has been retained.

In some hymns by Watts, certain stanzas are enclosed in square brackets, indicating that they could be omitted when the hymn was sung. In earlier volumes of this edition, the square brackets were replaced by hair-pin brackets, but in this volume all brackets have been omitted, and a note has been made in the critical commentary indicating which stanzas, if any, were bracketed. Also in Watts’s hymns, the notation “Pause” appears between some stanzas indicating that the singing could briefly stop at that point. These notations have not been retained in this volume, but their location is noted in the critical commentary.

Punctuation of the text generally follows that of the text source. However, here and there punctuation marks have been supplied without comment where the meaning of the text seemed to demand clarification.

In the original sources, quotation marks usually begin each line of a stanza including quoted words. In this edition, quotation marks have been applied only to the first line of each stanza and omitted from second and subsequent lines without comment. Eighteenth-century printers usually printed personal names and proper nouns in Italic type. Here these have been printed in Roman type without comment.

By the 1780s, Billings’s ability to set non-metrical prose had improved to the point where he rarely violated the natural accents of the text. Occasionally, however, one comes upon two or three measures in which the music diverges slightly from the textual accents. These occasions are both rare and momentary, and, since there is usually no gross distortion of the textual accent, it has been considered best to retain Billings’s own notation. In two unpublished works in Appendix II (Hadley and the anthem, “Praise the Lord, O My Soul”) the metrical irregularities are so pronounced that rebarring seemed necessary. These pieces have been rebarred in accordance with criteria outlined in Volume I of this edition (see pp. lxi–lxii), with the original barring indicated above the treble part.


This volume of The Complete Works of William Billings could not have been completed without the active encouragement and material assistance of many interested persons. Richard Crawford, Cynthia Hoover, and Hans Nathan all played crucial roles in aiding the editor’s work. Raoul Camus, Nym Cooke, Kate Van Winkle Keller, Nicholas Temperley, and William Kearns provided help and information. The hospitality and assistance received from the late Irving Lowens and from Margery Lowens was greatly appreciated. Timely encouragement from James Haar, H. Wiley Hitchcock, and Martin Picker was most welcome. To these and others unnamed, the editor extends his gratitude.

A special word of thanks goes to The American Antiquarian Society, The Special Collections Library of Brown University, The Massachusetts Historical Society, and The William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan for providing materials for the facsimiles which appear in this volume.

Much of the research for this volume was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Leverhulme Trust of London, England, for which the editor gives his thanks. He also acknowledges his debt to the University of Colorado for support and encouragement of his work.

To the librarians of the archives, historical societies, special collections, and college and public libraries the editor has visited in search of Billings’s music in manuscript, too numerous to mention individually, he expresses his appreciation.

And finally, to his wife, Marie, without whose support, encouragement, patience, and understanding none of this would have been possible, he expresses his gratitude.