An Appreciation of William Grant Still
For at least the last 20 years when I was first introduced to his music, one of my favorite American classical composers has been William Grant Still (1895-1978). For me, his music embodies all the sounds and feelings of the American experience. I hear America in his works - our history, the lore, the good, the bad, the gains and the longing.
Almost every biography starts off with the fact that Still was known as the “Dean of African-American Classical Composers,” and lauded in his own time. His music was influenced by everything from spirituals sung to him by his grandmother, to the birth of the Jazz Age. He learned to play several instruments, mostly self-taught, starting when he was a teen, which made him a valuable musician when he was hired to play in pit orchestras as an adult.
He studied briefly at Oberlin Conservatory, and later in Boston! When he was playing oboe in the orchestra for the musical Shuffle Along in Boston, he applied to, and was accepted at, the New England Conservatory. He was given a scholarship there by George Whitefield Chadwick, with whom he studied composition.
Composer, instrumentalist, arranger - he could do it all. His musical career, which spanned decades, is studded with “firsts,” including becoming the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in July of 1936. Almost two decades later, he became the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep South when he led the New Orleans Philharmonic in 1955. His music included many genres, from popular to jazz to big band to classical. He also made a name for himself with his arrangements for the movies, including Pennies from Heaven, which starred Bing Crosby.
Even as his star was rising, however, biographies mention some of the racially-charged events he experienced in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. One concerned the 1939 New York World’s Fair, for which he wrote a song that was played daily. Because of the color of his skin, however, he wasn’t allowed to attend a performance of it without police protection unless he came on “Negro Day.”
Another story was when he was hired to arrange the music for the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Although the movie starred some leading African-American performers of the day, including Lena Horne, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson and Cab Calloway, Still walked away from the project saying that Twentieth Century Fox “degraded colored people,” by perpetuating stereotypes.
Despite facing episodes like these, Still maintained his integrity, persevered, and continued being recognized for his music.
He is said to have written anywhere from 150 to 200 pieces, though some four dozen or so early works have been lost to time. Included in his output are five symphonies, nine operas (one of which he discarded so some biographies only list eight), four ballets, several chamber works and over 30 choral works. Let me share with you some of my favorite pieces so far!
Still’s Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” was the first of the “firsts” that I mentioned above (editor's note: for more about this symphony, read "Five Essential Symphonies by Black Composers"). It was premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, conducted by Howard Hanson, and was the first time a complete score by an African-American was performed by a major orchestra. Writing for the Naxos recording of the work, David Ciucevich quotes Still as saying “…I knew I wanted to write a symphony. I knew it should be an American work. I wanted to show how blues, often-considered a low-level genre of expression, could be raised to the highest musical level.” From the first time I heard the plaintive, bluesy English horn start the piece, I was hooked on Still’s writing. Here’s Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
In Still’s Three Visions, the second movement takes us to “Summerland.” He wasn’t writing about the season, per se. His “Summerland” was influenced by spirituals and is a promise of a beautiful afterlife. This rendition is with violinist Madeline Adkins with pianist Jason Hardink.
“African Dancer” is the first movement from Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano. Here’s a video from 2019 of violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Zhu Wang in a Young Concert Artists Series performance.
I found this lovely performance for you of a later work, Still’s 1960 Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends). The three friends are identified only in the three movements as “The Sentimental One,” “The Quiet One,” and “The Jovial One.” It’s played here by the Apollo Chamber Players.
I hope these examples excite you enough about William Grant Still’s music so that you’ll seek out more on your own. His Symphony No. 1 is his most performed work to this day, but several of his works pop up frequently enough on concert programs around the country and around the world. When you’re comfortable heading back into the concert hall, I say there’s nothing like hearing them performed “live.”
CODA: It’s always such a treat to discover recordings from a composer’s early days. I was able to find a recording of William Grant Still himself conducting his own music! He recorded Lenox Avenue with the Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra.
(A couple of further resources I can recommend include Catherine P. Smith’s William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions, and a website maintained by William Grant Still’s family.)