Thursday 26 September 2013

From Songsmith to Street Sweeper: William Billings

William Billings (Boston, Massachusetts, America, 7th October 1746 – Boston, Massachusetts, America, 26th September 1800)

Yesterday we left Covent Garden behind to hear a grisly tale from Massachusetts and since we're already on the other side of the Atlantic, it seemed only right to spend some more time in that fair state for a slightly less gruesome tale, mthough one with a tragic ending all of its own. Whereas our last visit to Massachusetts was steeped in blood, today's is drenched in music as we meet William Billings, a choral composer who found himself hugely popular even as he languished in the depths of poverty, forever prevented from receiving the money he was due.

A man with music in his very soul, Billings was not born into privilege and by his mid-teens was working to support himself as a tanner, toiling long hours at the trade. He suffered from physical deformities to his limbs, as well as having only one eye and an addiction to snuff would ravage his voice and respiratory system yet none of this would hold Billings back as he rose from tanner to celebrated pioneer of American choral music. With no formal training, Billings had an innate passion and talent for music that drove him to leave the tanning trade by the age of 22, when he took up a position as a teacher of choral singing.

With his lessons paying the bills, Billings quickly moved into composition and when he published his works he frequent providing colourfully written narratives to accompany them. These notes allowed Billings to discuss music, tell stories and give performance directions, revealing much of the eccentric character of the composer as well as his deep understanding of the interplay of voice and instrument. He became known for his celebratory religious compositions and as travellers set out to discover America, they took with them Billings' songs and music.  In his work Billings developed a choral sound that was uniquely his own, a new musical identity for the colonies that acknowledged little debt to its European forebears.

As Billings' fame increased so too did his social circle grow ever more illustrious and he befriended many major figures of the American Revolution, including Samuel Adams, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship of many years standing. When he required engraving, he turned to Paul Revere, another great friend; however, he remained deeply involved with those who performed his work, teaching in singing schools throughout the state and tirelessly publicising the work of these still-new institutions.

Sadly, Billings was to meet with personal disaster thanks to the virtually non-existent American laws of copyright during his time. His enormous popularity meant that his works were reprinted across the country and the composer found himself with no recourse to claim royalties. Instead, his music was legally exempted from copyright and could be printed and performed freely. Though the law was subsequently strengthened the changes came too late for the composer and he was plunged into poverty despite the best efforts of his friends to arrange charitable sales and performances of his work. As choral music declined in popularity Billings took a job as a street sweeper but would die soon after, the end perhaps hastened by his long-term addictions to snuff and tobacco.

Forgotten in death, the once hugely popular composer languished in anonymity for almost two centuries. His work was rarely performed outside of rural parts of the southern states and his name faded from popular memory until his choral works enjoyed a richly-deserved revival in the twentieth century. Inspiring, dramatic and characterful, the self-taught composer is once again achieving the acclaim he so richly deserves.


Unknown said...

How awful to have soared so high and sunk so low! A street cleaner! I love the idea of the narratives with the music. Such a great accomplishment of the creative act. Strange that he should achieve immortality through his music after obscurity for so long.

Catherine Curzon said...

And richly deserved!