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William Grant Still and his Afro-American Symphony

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William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was a gifted African-American composer, songwriter, arranger, conductor, and oboist who wrote more than 150 compositions and is often referred to as “the Dean of African-American Classical Composers.”  He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. Born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Wilkinson County, MS, he was the son of two teachers and musicians, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872–1927) and William Grant Still (1871–1895), who were of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish, and Scotch bloods.  William was only three months old when his father, a partner in a grocery store and a local bandleader, died and his mother took him to with her mother in Little Rock, AR, where she taught English in the high school for 33 years and his musical education began with violin lessons from a private teacher starting at age fifteen, and with later inspiration from the Red Seal operatic recordings bought for him by his stepfather Charles B. Shepperson who also took him to operettas  and generally nurtured his stepson’s musical interests.  The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour.  Still grew up in Little Rock, and taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, showing a great interest in music.  His maternal grandmother sang African-American spirituals to him.

In 1911, at age sixteen, Still graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock.  His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, but he spent most of his time conducting the university band, learning to play the various instruments involved, and making his initial attempts to compose and to orchestrate. Still became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.   His subsequent studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at first by a legacy from his father, and later by a scholarship established just for him by the faculty to study music with Friedrick Lehmann.   At the end of his college years, in 1918, Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. Afterwards, he entered the world of commercial (popular) music, playing in orchestras and orchestrating, working in particular with the violin, cello and oboe.  Between 1919 and 1921, Still worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band.   His other employers included Don Voorhees, Sophie Tucker, and Artie Shaw.

While playing oboe in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical, Shuffle Along, in Boston, MA, Still applied to study at the New England Conservatory with George Whitefield Chadwick, and was again rewarded with a scholarship due to Mr. Chadwick’s own vision and generosity.  He also studied, again on an individual scholarship, with the noted ultra-modern composer Edgard Varèse. In the Twenties, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York, and began a valued friendship with Dr. Howard Hanson of Rochester.  His notable early orchestral compositions include 1924’s Darker America and 1926’s From the Black Belt.  Later in the twenties, he served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a “Negro Rhapsody” composed by the noted Harlem Stride pianist, James P. Johnson.  His initial hiring by Paul Whiteman took place in early November 1929.  In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour over CBS and WOR, and Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold Show, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts. Many of Still’s musical creations melded jazz with more traditional orchestral melodies. They also incorporated his passionate interest in African music. He created 1930’s Sahdji, a ballet with an African backdrop, and his acclaimed 1937 ballet, Lenox Avenue, takes place in Harlem.

After moving to Los Angeles, CA, in the early 1930s, citations from numerous organizations, local and elsewhere in the United States, came to the composer.  He arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe).  In 1934, Still received his first Guggenheim Fellowship and started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel.   In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his compositions at the Hollywood Bowl as the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra. In 1939, Still married journalist and concert pianist, Verna Arvey, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Still died.   In 1949 his opera Troubled Island, originally completed in 1939, about Jean Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera at the City Center of Music and Drama. It was the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major company.  In 1939-40 he received an important commission from the New York World’s Fair.  He received a Doctor of Music from Howard University in 1941.  In 1944, he won the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for the best Overture to celebrate its Jubilee season, with a work called Festive Overture.  Still also wrote for radio and shared his talents further by creating compositions for children in the 1950s.

Additionally, Still was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company.  In 1953, a Freedoms Foundation Award came to Still for his To You, America! which honored West Points Sesquicentennial Celebration.  He was the first Afro-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South in 1955, when he directed the New Orleans Philharmonic at Southern University. In 1961, he received the prize offered by the U. S. Committee for the U. N., the N.F.M.C. and the Aeolian Music Foundation for his orchestral work, The Peaceful Land, cited as the best musical composition honoring the United Nations.  He died at the age of 83, in Los Angeles, CA, of heart failure on December 3, 1978.  He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national United States television when A Bayou Legend, completed in 1941, premiered on PBS in June of 1981. Still wrote over 150 compositions (well over 200 if his lost early works could be counted), including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of folk themes, especially Negro spirituals, plus instrumental, choral and solo vocal works.  Many of his works reflect his concerns about the position of African Americans in society.  His works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.

The following works by William Grant Still are contained in my collection:

Africa, Symphonic Poem (1930).

In Memoriam (1943).

Symphony No. 1, Afro-American (1930).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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