Performance Practice for the Music of William Billings


Several of Billings’ tunebooks, notably The Singing-Master’s Assistant and The Continental Harmony, contain lengthy introductions for singers. As was often the case in tunebooks of the era, and in the subsequent shape-note tunebooks, the introductions were in large part copied from other books, notably those of English composers such as William Tans’ur. Unlike some tunebook editors, Billings seems actually to have read and taken seriously his introductions, modified them extensively (sometimes to make the spelling less standard and more to his liking!), and added long sections of his own. A few notes, mostly from The Continental Harmony, follow.

It was (and still is) common practice for the treble and tenor parts to be doubled in octaves. Billings heartily approved of this:

… but in general they are best sung together, so viz. if a man sings it [the Treble part] as a Medius and a woman as a Treble, it is then in effect as two parts; so likewise, if a man sing a Tenor with a masculine and a woman with a feminine voice, the Tenor is as full as two parts, and a tune so sung, (although it has but four parts) is in effect the same as six. Such a conjunction of masculine and feminine voices is beyond expression, sweet and ravishing, and is esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatsoever, framed by human invention.

However, he cautioned that the treble and tenor should not simply be switched, as is sometimes done (the melody usually being in the tenor, apparently confusing to modern ears). It’s also clear in some of Billing’s anthems, which contain many solos and duets between parts, that doubling in octaves would ruin the robust tone painting. I Am the Rose of Sharon is a well-known example; O Praise the Lord is another. Fuging tunes might suffer from doubling, as would the occasional psalm tune, such as Hopkinton.

Repeated notes on the same syllable should be treated as tied. See, for example, Creation.

[TODO: Grace of transition.]

Perhaps the least familiar aspect of Billings’ music to modern performers is his conception of time signatures. Indeed, he did not speak of “time signatures” at all, but rather of “moods of time,” harking back to the Renaissance conception of a mensuration that effectively determined both the subdivision of beats and the tempo. The practical effect of this is that in the music of Billings and his contemporaries (as well as in the shape-note tradition) time signatures determine tempos.

Billings apparently took the tempos very seriously. At any rate he recommended using pendulums as metronomes, even giving the appropriate length of the pendulum for each mood of time. “Fast” or “Slow” words—Billings used “affettuoso,” for example—meant that “such strains [should be] performed one fourth part quicker or slower.”

The nine moods discussed by Billings used are:

Name Time Signature Beat and Tempo
Adagio Common Time Quarter = 60
Largo Cut Time Quarter = 80
Allegro Backwards Cut Time Half = 60
Two from Four 2/4 Quarter = 120
Three to Two 3/2 Half = 60
Three from Four 3/4 Quarter = 80
Three from Eight 3/8 Dotted Quarter = 53
Six to Four 6/4 Dotted Half = 80
Six from Eight 6/8 Dotted Quarter = 80