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Billings, William

american music boston tunes”

Billings, William, pioneer American composer of hymns and anthems and popularizer of “fuging tunes” b. Boston, Oct. 7, 1746; d. there, Sept. 26, 1800. A tanner’s apprentice, he acquired the rudiments of music from treatises by Tans’ur. He compensated for his lack of education by a wealth of original ideas and a determination to put them into practice. His first musical collection, The New England Psalm Singer (Boston, 1770), contained what he described at a later date as “fuging pieces…more than twenty times as powerful as the old slow tunes” The technique of these pieces was canonic, with “each part striving for mastery and victory.” His other publ. books were The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), Music in Miniature (1779), The Psalm Singer’s Amusement (1781), The Suffolk Harmony (1786), and The Continental Harmony (1794). In one instance, he harmonized a tune, Jargon, entirely in dissonances; this was prefaced by a “Manifesto” to the Goddess of Discord. There was further a choral work, Modern Music , in which the proclaimed aim was expressed in the opening lines: “We are met for a concert of modern invention—To tickle the ear is our present intention.” Several of his hymns became popular, particularly Chester and The Rose of Sharon; an interesting historical work was his Lamentation over Boston , written in Watertown while Boston was occupied by the British. However, he could not earn a living by his music. Appeals made to provide him and his large family with funds bore little fruit, and Billings died in abject poverty. The combination of reverence and solemnity with humor makes the songs of Billings unique in the annals of American music, and aroused the curiosity of many modern American musicians. Henry Cowell wrote a series of “fuging tunes” and William Schuman’s New England Triptych is based on 3 Billings tunes. John Cage’s Apartment House 1776 , written to commemorate the bicenten-nial of the American Revolution, is comprised of 44 “rewritten” four-part choral works by Billings and other American composers. K. Kroeger and H. Nathan ed. The Complete Works of William Billings (4 vols., Charlottesville, Va., 1977-90).

Billington, Elizabeth (née Weichsel) [next] [back] Bilk, (Mr.) Acker (Bernard Stanley)

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