Academic journal article Notes

The "Other" Billings: The Life and Music of Nathaniel Billings (1768-1853), an Early American Composer

Academic journal article Notes

The "Other" Billings: The Life and Music of Nathaniel Billings (1768-1853), an Early American Composer

Article excerpt

"No one seems to know very much about Nathaniel Billings," wrote the social historian Eugene P. Link in his 1970 article, "The Republican Harmony (1795) of Nathaniel Billings." (1) William Billings was, of course, the best-known American composer of the eighteenth century, and many scholars, including Link, have wondered if Nathaniel Billings was a relative of his. Nathaniel Billings's name sometimes surfaced in American psalmody research as the compiler of a tunebook that no one had seen, and as the composer of a few pieces published in the collections of others. But like many other early American psalmodists whose compositions failed to enter the mainstream of American sacred music of the time, the "other" Billings largely escaped the notice of biographers.

The existence of The Republican Harmony had been known since early in the twentieth century when Charles Evans compiled his American Bibliography. (2) Later, in the survey of tunebooks for his 1949 doctoral dissertation, Allen P. Britton listed the work as "not located," (3) as did he and Irving Lowens in their 1953 article in this journal. (4) Link's article announced the discovery of what was then thought to be a unique copy of this tunebook at the State University of New York, College at Plattsburgh. Richard Crawford, in his later, more comprehensive survey, recorded a second copy at the Huntington Library in California. (5) In 1995, when Nathaniel Billings's collected works were edited for the collection Music of the New American Nation, (6) he was still an enigma. We can now supply some details of the life and activities of this talented but elusive early American composer.

Joan Callahan, in researching her family history, found that her great-grandfather, William Luther, had once lived in the household of a Nathaniel Billings, listed in the 1850 United States census of Paterson, New Jersey, as an eighty-one-year-old "musician" born in Massachusetts. From Eugene Link's article, she knew that a Nathaniel Billings had been a composer, singing master, and tunebook compiler before the turn of the nineteenth century, and she wondered if this was the same musician living in Paterson in 1850 at an advanced age. Like Link, she also wondered if he was kin to the Boston psalmodist, William Billings. Subsequent research has confirmed that the Nathaniel Billings in 1850 New Jersey was almost certainly the same as the author of The Republican Harmony. And although there is much in his music that is similar to William Billings's style, we have been unable to establish even a remote family tie between Nathaniel Billings and that famous early Boston musician. (7) In addition to these findings, some interesting and valuable information on Nathaniel Billings's extended family has come to light that reflects on his life, activities, and the history of American sacred music.

Although several men in late-eighteenth-century Massachusetts were named Nathaniel Billings, our Nathaniel was born in Northborough, Massachusetts, on 3 August 1768, the eldest of the eight children of Sylvanus Billings (b.1745) and Keturah Fosgate (b.1748). Sylvanus Billings and his father, Thomas (b.1712), were Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. They were confined to their farms in 1776 and imprisoned in 1777 for their Tory sympathies. (8) The people of Northborough seem to have forgiven the Billings family their failure to support the Revolution, and they even elected Sylvanus to the offices of warden and highway surveyor in 1783. (9) Probably seeking cheaper land and fresh opportunities, the family moved to Weathersfield, Vermont, sometime between 1800 and 1810. But by this time, Nathaniel had long departed the family home.

We do not know exactly how Nathaniel Billings became a musician. At the time, there were few opportunities for thorough musical training. As a talented young man with an interest in psalmody, he seems likely to have attended singing schools held in his area by either resident or itinerant singing masters. …

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