The University of Mississippi

Music 526: Music in the United States

William Billings on Musick

On The New-England Psalm-Singer

Kind Reader:
No doubt you (do or ought to) remember. that about ten years ago, I published a Book entitled, The New England Psalm Singer, &c. And truly a most masterly and inimitable Performance, I then thought it to be. Oh! how did my foolish heart throb and beat with tumultuous joy! With what impatience did I wait on the Book-Binder, while stitching the sheets and putting on the covers, with what extacy, did I snatch the yet unfinished Book out of his hands, and pressing it to my bosom, with rapturous delight; how lavish was I in encomiums on this infant production of my own numb skull[!] Welcome; thrice welcome, thou legitimate offspring of my brain, go forth my little Book, go forth and immortalize the name of your Author; may your sale be rapid and may you speedily run through ten thousand editions; may you be a welcome guest in all companies, and what will add tenfold to your dignity, may you find your way into the libraries of the learned. Thou art my Reuben, my first born, the beginning of my strength, the excellency of my dignity, and the excellency of my power. But to my great mortification, I soon discovered it was Reuben in the sequel, and Reuben all over; for unstable as water, it did not excell.... After impartial examination, I have discovered that many of the pieces in that Book were never worth my printing, or your inspection; therefore in order to make you ample amends for my former intrusion, I have selected and corrected some of the tunes which were most approved of in that book, and have added several new pieces which I think to be very good ones; for if I thought otherwise, I should not have presented them to you. But however, I am not so tenacious of my own opinion, as to desire you to take my word for it; but rather advise you all to purchase a Book and satisfy yourselves in that particular, and then I make no doubt, but you will readily concur with me in this sentiment: viz. That the Singing Master's Assistant, is a much better Book than the New-England Psalm Singer.

The Singing-Master's Assistant, 1778.

Fuging tunes

It is an old maxim, and I think a very just one, viz. that variety is always pleasing, and it is well known that there is more variety in one piece of fuging music, than in twenty pieces of plain song, for while the tones do not sweetly coincide and agree, the words are seemingly engaged in a musical warfare; and excuse the paradox if I further add, that each part seems determined by dint of harmony and strength of accent, to drown his competitor in an ocean of harmony, and while each part is thus mutually striving for mastery, and sweetly contending for victory, the audience are most luxuriously entertained, and exceedingly delighted in the mean time, their minds are surprizingly agitated, and extremely fluctuated; sometimes declaring in favour of one part, and sometimes another. Now the solemn bass demands the attention, now the manly tenor, now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble, now here, now there, now here again.--O inchanting! O ecstatic! Push on, push on ye sons of harmony, and
Discharge your deep mouth'd canon, full fraught with Diapasons;
May you with Maestoso, rush on to Choro-Grando,
And then with Vigoroso, let fly your Diapentes
About our nervous system.


Musical composition is a sort of something, which is much better felt than described, (at least by me) for if I was to attempt it, I should not know where to begin or where to leave off; therefore considering myself so unable to perform it, I shall not undertake the task; but in answer to your question, although I am not confined to rules prescribed by others, yet I come near as I possibly can to a set of rules which I have carved out for myself; but when fancy gets upon the wing, she seems to despise all form, and scorns to be confined or limited by any formal prescriptions whatsoever; for the first part [tenor] is nothing more than a flight of fancy, the other parts are forced to comply and conform to that, by partaking of the same air, or, at least, as much of it as they can get: But by reason of this restraint, the last parts are seldom so good as the first; for the second part [bass] is subservient to the first, the third part [treble] must conform to first and second, and the fourth part [counter] must conform to the other three; therefore 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.

Lining out

I do not see any more rule for stopping at a double Bar, than at a single Bar, unless there be a rest inserted; because it cannot be done without losing time; and in my definition of a double Bar,(1) instead of saying, that you may stop to take breath, I should have said that you may stop to catch breath; and even that must be done without losing time; but double Bars in Psalm tunes are placed at the ends of the lines, for the benefit of the sight, to direct the performer, where to stop, in congregations, where they keep up that absurd practive of reading between the lines, which is so destructive to harmony, and is a work of so much time, that unless the performers have very good memories, they are apt to forget the tune, while the line is reading. I defy the greatest advocates for reading between the lines, to produce one word of scripture for it, and I will leave it to all judicious people, whether it is founded on reason; and certainly, whatever is founded on neither reason, nor religion, had better be omitted. The practice of retailing(2) the psalm line by line, whas introduced so long ago as when very few people had the knowledge of reading; therefore a reader was substituted for the whole congregation, who was called a Clerk; but at this time when every man is capable of reading for himself; and when we consider the confusion that is caused in the music, by reading the lines, and the destruction it occasions to the sense of the psalm, I can see no reason for keeping up so absurd a practice. Consider further, that according to the practice in country churches, the psalm is three times repeated. First the minister reads it audibly alone, secondly the clerk, or deacon, line by line, and thirdly, it is sung by the congregation; now if we are obliged to repeat the psalm three times over, why are we not obliged to repeat our prayers as often before they would be deemed to be acceptable[?] I expect this doctrine will meet with some opposition in the country, but let who will concur or dissent, I think myself highly honoured in having the approbation of the pious and learned Dr. Watts (that great master of divine song) who in his writings has declared himself to be of the same opinion.

  1. Among the many other absurdities which always take place, where this contemptible practice of reading between the lines is still kept up, this one may be added, viz. the great tendency it has to shut such an excellent body of divine poetry (as is contained in the psalm and hymn book now in vogue among us) out of private families; for where the singing is carried on without reading, the performers must (of necessity) be furnished with books; on the other hand, there are many who excuse themselves from procuring books in this manner, viz. why should I be at this unnecessary expense, when I am enabled (by the help of the Clerk, or Deacon) to sing without it? Ironically, I answer, and why need we be at the expense of purchasing a bible, or trouble ourselves with perusing it at home, so long as we may, by going to meeting once a week, hear a chapter or two gratis[?] (I confess this remark should have been inserted in the body of the work, but it did not take place in my mind till the pages were full; therefore I plead benefit of margin, a glorious privilege, for which bad memories and dull authors cannot be too thankful.)
  2. Whatever Mr. Clerk, or Mr. Deacon, or Mr. Any-body-else, who sustains the office of retailer may think; I shall take the liberty to tell them, I think it a very gross affront upon the audience, for they still go upon the old supposition, viz. the congregation in general cannot read; therefore they practically say, we men of letters, and you ignorant creatures.
  3. Here take the Doctor's own words. "It were to be wished that all congregations and private families would sing as they do in foreign protestant churches, without reading line by line, though the author has done what he could to make the sense complete in every line or two, yet many inconveniences will always attend this unhappy manner of singing." &c. Thus he, the Rev. Doctor, does not tarry upon this subject long enough to enumerate the many inconveniences he seems to refer to. I imagine his reasons for declining the task, were, the great tendency such an undertaking would have to swell each page to a treatise, or rather a volume, therefore we may reasonably conclude that the omission was merely for want of room, not for want of reason.
Continental Harmony, 1794.

Billings' words to CHESTER

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