William Billings: Fancy Goes First, Art Comes After

The colonial era composer was born on this day 260 years ago. I was first introduced to his music as I sifted through the New World label LP’s when I worked in public radio, particularly this recording, which I see is now available in cd format.

There are many great tunes and choral arrangements (on his choral wiki site) but I couldn’t locate a version of “The Dying Christian’s Last Farewell. I found it the highlight of the recording linked above. There’s a one minute sample of the piece and this brief description: “an enormously expressive meditation on death and resurrection.”

Billings was probably the most accomplished of the group of mostly New England composers who defined a distinctive American style in sacred music. One can hear the roots: classical composers like Handel, and sacred traditions of Anglican chant, not to mention the echoes of polyphony and plainsong.

From the composer’s own pen:

Perhaps some may think that I mean and intend to throw Art entirely out of the question. I answer, by no means, for the more art is displayed, the more Nature is decorated. And in some sorts of composition there is dry study required, and art very requisite. For instance, in a fuge, where the parts come in after each other with the same notes, but even here, art is subservient to genius, for fancy goes first and strikes out the work roughly, and art comes after and polishes it over.

This sort of American music soon gave way to the more polished sounds imported from Europe. Churches in American cities set aside their growing heritage in favor of the music floating over from the other side of the Atlantic. Some of the early colonial music migrated to the rural areas, and especially Appalachia for inclusion in the shape note hymnals of the 19th century.

In the last few decades, the music of Billings and his contemporaries have been revived as people look to various genres of early music for modern inspiration.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to William Billings: Fancy Goes First, Art Comes After

  1. Liam says:

    What’s an image of Lowell Mason doing here? (Billings died in 1800, well before the advent of photography.) He was 2 generations after Billings, and represented the transitional period of white American vernacular hymnody.

    I cut my teeth on Billings and shape note music at my Dominican collegiate parish in Virginia. Our schola, led by a nun with chant training, was formed as an alternative to the strictly contemporary music group then reigning (this was 1981). We did a mix of chant, polyphony (nothing too complicated), strophic hymnody and anthems, and we got exposed to folks like Billings and shape note hymnody. I’ve retained a deep fondness for ante-bellum American vernacular hymnody ever since. For training new choristers, one could do worse than inviting them to participate in a local Sacred Harp sing-in; they will learn good sight-reading and sol-fegging skills – the music, when sung at the historical tempos (rather than the dirge-like tempos one sometimes hears nowadays, a special travesty in the case of Wondrous Love), keeps you quick on your singing toes, as it were, especially in the fabled New England “fuguing tunes” of this idiom.

    The Boston Camerata does some interesting modernized re-arrangments of this music.

    Many of the tunes of this idiom – especially if you expand it to include the somewhat differently-arisen music of Quakers and Shakers – are supernally lovely.

    One of my personal favorites: Sweet Prospect.

  2. Liam says:

    PS: sometimes, the best way to capture the spirit of this music is to sing it as if you could feel the devil nipping at your heels…a certain furious intensity that sometimes overflows into anxious rapture.

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks for the correction. I saw “Mason” come up on the image link and I need to be more careful with blind image links on Google. Hopefully this rendition comes close to his appearance; it was on about a dozen web sites.

  4. Liam says:


    I doubt it’s historically correct, as the hairstyle and dress are from a period a generation after he died. Billings died during the first Adams adminstration; that style appears to be Jacksonian.

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