Revisiting William Grant Still

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When this concert, focused on the career of William Grant Still, was scheduled a year and a half ago, those who were betting on who might be the next president of the United States gave Barack Obama very low odds. But nothing could be more appropriate than the first major retrospective on a distinguished African American composer taking place in the first months of the administration of America’s first black president. The appropriateness of the timing of the concert, however accidental, should not be ascribed merely to the obvious. Eminent African American composers of classical and concert music have been rare, just as the advent of an African American president is unique, at least for now. What connects the career of Barack Obama with that of William Grant Still is that they both defy the easy stereotypes we associate with race.

One lesson, among many, that should be learned from the recent election it is that race per se is not a scientific concept but a cultural one. Masquerading as science, conceptions of race have been used for abusive purposes for centuries, and particularly since the nineteenth century. In this country, it has historically been applied as a descriptive and analytic term especially by the white community for political and social purposes, not only among those on the right who still harbor dreams of segregation and white supremacy, but also among those on the left whose application of the term has led to the prescriptive phenomenon we call political correctness. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the greatest African American intellectual in American history, was correct that the color line has defined the shape of American history and culture. But that straightforward and defining observation has been misunderstood so as to distort any understanding of how truly simplistic and reductive the placement of undue weight on skin color has been in any attempt by whites and blacks to understand each other, much less themselves. Modern science in the form of study of the human genome has revealed revolutionary truths. Among them are the facts that skin color is just another complex genetic trait, that so-called races are more alike than they are different, that it is Africa that possesses the greatest genetic diversity, and that it is from Africa that all of the rest of the world’s population seems to have migrated— including the population of Europe, where the most elaborate theories of race were developed. The President of the United States may be black, but who he is and where he comes from fits no deterministic stereotype whatsoever. It is not surprise then that his views on issues have confounded liberals and conservatives alike.

The reductive image in the mind of most white citizens of what constitutes a black musician rarely, if ever, includes “serious” or “classical” music. That fact is a social reality reflecting decades and generations of discrimination and exclusion, rather than some inherent affinity on the part of members of one so-called race to a certain kind of expressive vocabulary. Still’s misfortune was that he did not fit the expectations placed upon him as an African American by both the white community and his fellow African Americans. Although, as this concert demonstrates, Still worked to use his identity as an African American as a source for his compositional career, his strategy was no more exceptional than Bartok’s use of Hungarian folk traditions or Stravinsky’s appropriation of Russian folk materials.

If the universal, whether in literature or music, is to be expressed through the creation of an artwork, it usually derives from the very particular. Composers and writers are best served when they deal with what they know and understand intimately and with that to which they have a compelling emotional connection. But Still did not behave in a way that those who discriminated against him wished him to act; neither did he conform to the wishes of those who looked to him to join in a common cause. His most famous work, the African American Symphony (1930), which is not on today’s program by intention, gained currency because it was the perfect act of tokenism on behalf of concert promoters and audiences. It was the first symphony by an African American to be performed by a major orchestra.

Still’s other moment of notoriety was his collaboration with Langston Hughes on Troubled Island, the first African American opera slated to be produced by the New York City Opera. It opened in 1949 in the midst of the first wave of post-war anti-communism. Still refused to be stereotyped merely as a novel phenomenon or as an exception. He approached the craft of composition not as a representative of a race but as a composer who dealt with the same twentieth-century challenges of modernism and accessibility that Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Howard Hanson faced. Still was an American composer who was inspired, after studying with Varese (just as with Copland was after studying with Boulanger) not to follow a European trajectory toward a more experimental and avant-garde modernism. Composers of Still’s generation from America sought to create something distinctly American in the twentieth century that would draw a wide audience and not turn out to be pale imitation of European conceits.

But perhaps Still’s worst sin, from the perspective of white and black America, was his outspoken anti-communism during the postwar era, which made him something of a pariah, particularly in liberal white circles. His politics were the polar opposite of Paul Robeson, the famous and still revered singer who was the victim of virulent anti-communism and racism, a proud progressive for whom the Soviet Union was not an evil empire, but perhaps the very opposite. In the 1950s, during the nascent years of the civil rights movement, the effective alliance was between liberal and progressive white America that had severe doubts about the saber rattling and arms race of the Cold War, and the leadership of the black community. Still, in what was considered to be an appalling betrayal of black American progressivism at the time, sided with the enemy by embracing the traditions of a rigid, suspicious, and somewhat intolerant anti-communism that dated back to 1919.

Still’s career and reputation suffered therefore as the result of two factors. First, he was black and sought to make a career in a world that separated white and black and relegated blacks to the arts that were viewed as authentically black and exotic to whites. Successful African American artists triumphed in an arena that was conceded to the black community: jazz. The visible symbolic figures black figures of American music were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. Classical music was restricted; it was not viewed as a proper venue for blacks (despite the presence of black classical musicians going back to Beethoven’s colleague George Hightower). Whites who reveled in jazz were, despite themselves, engaging in a form of condescension. It was incredibly difficult for an African American in the United States to make a career in classical music. The first person to recognize this barrier was Antonin Dvorak, who when he came in the 1890s to the short-lived National Conservatory in New York, embraced openly the African American tradition. He believed that it was from the African American and Native American traditions that an authentic American music would emerge. His vision of the future was not of a popular art form or something like jazz, but of a classical tradition in America transformed by two distinctive features that emerged from American history: the legacy of slavery and the memory of the indigenous peoples of the continent. Still’s music is probably the most eloquent realization of Dvorak’s hopes. His output was extensive, including music for film and television, and his inspiration and craftsmanship were superb. The second factor that damaged Still’s career was, having offended the mainstream white community, his politics also offended the black and white progressive community. It is worth noting, however, that one established figure who was a firm supporter of Still was Leopold Stokowski (who performed the African American Symphony in 1937 with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and who corresponded with Still regarding music for his brand new orchestra in 1962, the American Symphony Orchestra (see the letter reprinted in this publication).

Despite all the efforts of political correctness, there is a baffling question. Why after persistent efforts to reclaim the history of African Americans as part of the way in which American history is told, is the name William Grant Still so obscure? It deserves to be as well known as the names of the jazz greats of his time. There are many reasons, not least of which is how little importance classical music in retrospect seems to hold in our self-image as a nation. But probably more significant in this context is that Still was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He defied expectations and set his own path.

If the election of Barack Obama signals a new age, it gives us the opportunity to reconsider how we think about race, and not only in politics. The first step may be to acknowledge that the color of one’s skin determines real issues of opportunity and exclusion. But in fact the color of skin does not determine the outcome. And there is no uniformity in response to the world that the color of one’s skin renders inevitable. William Grant Still was an individual who crafted an individual voice. He crafted his own vision of the African American heritage. In the end the promise of individuality and a respect for it commends democracy and freedom to us all.

George Whitefield Chadwick, Rip Van Winkle Overture

By Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Although one of his biographers has referred to him as a “common man,” George Whitefield Chadwick, while hardly cutting a romantic figure, possessed an intriguingly contradictory and complicated personality that was far from ordinary. He came from New England yeoman stock, but, despite a limited formal education, rose to become the director of the New England Conservatory. Unusual for the period, Chadwick was simultaneously enamored of Brahms and Wagner, but his own Italianate operas can best be described as “Yankee verismo.” Chadwick composed symphonies that followed the Beethovenian models that he had assimilated as a student in Germany, but he was surprisingly interested in contemporary French music, especially that of Debussy. Indeed, Chadwick’s finest works, such as the evergreen Symphonic Sketches (1904) are filled with echoes of American vernacular music—including ragtime and vaudeville songs—that lend these pieces a vitality lacking in his self-consciously “European” scores.

Chadwick’s personality was an admixture of Yankee toughness, irascibility, and endearing humor. However, the contradictions that mark his aesthetics and personality are found in a disturbing form in his racial convictions. On the one hand, Chadwick revered his Jewish teacher at Leipzig, Salomon Jadassohn, but feared that the influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States would dilute the purity of the Anglo-Celtic traditions that he believed to be fount of authentic American musical values. As the composer’s biographer, Victor Fell Yellin, has tactfully remarked, “The very process of immigration, which [Chadwick’s opera] The Padrone sympathetically examined, was to be the cause of a gap in the continuity of American musical history between older composers of Yankee stock and young modernists, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants.” Furthermore, Chadwick was capable of noting “BDW”—for “Born Dat Way”—on the file of an African-American student at the New England Conservatory, while teaching and greatly encouraging William Grant Still.

Chadwick nailed his American colors to the mast early in his career by composing the concert overture Rip Van Winkle in 1879 as his “graduation piece” from the Leipzig Conservatory. The usually severe German music critics looked with favor upon this lively work, and both Jadassohn and Carl Reinecke, director of the Leipzig Conservatory, praised their brash American student. Indeed, Chadwick, who was just twenty-five years old when he completed Rip Van Winkle, evinces an admirable formal poise as well as a precocious mastery of orchestral timbre. (At the New England Conservatory, Chadwick was the first American pedagogue to dedicate a course solely to the art and science of orchestration.) Chadwick drew his inspiration in part from Washington Irving’s famous Hudson River Valley tale of 1809, and in part from a popular stage adaptation of Irving’s story that had been tailored for the comic actor Joseph Jefferson. Whatever the initial impetus, the tale of Rip Van Winkle’s long nap drew some lively music from the young Yankee composer. After an introductory cello solo that recalls the opening of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Chadwick aptly limns the outline of Irving’s story with music of warmth, color, and considerable panache.

William Grant Still, Darker America, Africa, Symphony No. 2

By Catherine Parsons Smith is the author of William Grant Still (Illinois, 2008); William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions (California, 2000); and Making Music in Los Angeles (California, 2007)

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas; he attended Wilberforce College and, more briefly, Oberlin. He came to New York in 1919 to play and arrange for W.C. Handy; two years later he became the oboist in the pit orchestra for Sissle and Blake’s groundbreaking Shuffle Along. When the show moved to Boston, Still sought out George Whitefield Chadwick for composition lessons. Returning to New York, he succeeded Fletcher Henderson as recording director for the short-lived Black Swan label. That was when he found his way to Edgar Varèse, with whom he studied for about two years while his commercial work continued to grow. Varèse encouraged his lyric gifts, introduced him to modernist scores, challenged him to experiment with form, programmed his music on International Composers Guild concerts, and saw that he met conductors who would become his champions. Long after Still had distanced himself from Varèse’s ultramodernist aesthetic, he reaffirmed his appreciation for his mentor’s teaching and his friendship.

By the time he left New York in 1934 with a Guggenheim fellowship, Still was established as an arranger (on Broadway and in radio) and as a composer. For example: three major works were premiered between April 1930 and October 1931: Africa, the ballet Sahdji, and the now well-known Afro-American Symphony. Although his connections with Hollywood were brief and occasionally controversial, Still remained in Los Angeles, eventually composing eight operas and a large quantity of orchestral and chamber music.

This program includes three landmarks in Still’s composing career; they represent aspects of the three style periods-variously shaped by his African American identity and his relationship with musical modernism-he later described. An early period, relatively short-lived, reflected Varese’s influence most directly. Two earlier, more “modernist” works (From the Land of Dreams, February 1925, and Levee Land, January 1926,) left his audiences puzzled rather than pleased. Darker America, the third to be heard on an ICG program, was his first clear success as a composer of concert music. Composed in 1924 and premiered at Aeolian Hall on November 22, 1926, Eugene Goossens conducting, it was Still’s first extended piece, and the first in which Still was seen as having largely escaped Varèse’s influence. Still’s program note reflects the seriousness of his purpose: “Darker America is representative of the American Negro, and suggests triumph over sorrows through fervent prayer.” He identifies an opening theme of “the American Negro” in the strings, a “sorrow theme” in the English horn, a theme of “hope” in the muted brass, a prayer “of numbed rather than anguished souls” in the oboe. The tutti expression of triumph comes over the opening “American Negro” theme. The melodic G minor triad outlined at the start recurs in the other works to be heard today; the same symbolism assigned to it here might be inferred there.

Still labeled the second of his periods, c. 1926-34, “Negroid.” In those years he shook off Varèse’s modernist influence in favor of invoking Black cultural traditions in more obvious ways than he had done previously. His greater comfort with the expressive freedom gleaned from the modernists, now combined with more sophisticated formal and harmonic control, is evident. In attempting to represent matters African-a compelling topic for artists in the 1920s-he now confronted the aesthetic gulf between the exploitative primitivism characteristic of the (white) modernists and the character with which he, as a man of the Harlem Renaissance, wanted to represent the ancestral and cultural African connections of Black Americans. No wonder he struggled long and hard-for more than a decade-over Africa, and no wonder the work exudes aesthetic integrity even though Still never traveled to that continent.

“The Africa of my imagination” is Still’s succinct description of this work in a letter to its first conductor, George Barrère. His fuller description:

“An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore, and influenced by his contact with American civilization. He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.

I. He views it first as a land of peace; peace that is partly pastoral in nature and partly spiritual.

II. It is to him also a land of fanciful and mysterious romance; romance tinged with ineffable sorrow.

III. Contact with American civilization has not enabled him to completely overcome his inherent superstitious nature. It is that heritage of his forebears binding him irrevocably to the past, and making it possible for him to form the most definite concept of Africa.”

A sketch of the initial segment of Africa may date from 1924. (Although it was first performed in 1930, a “final” revision is dated 1935.) After opening with the distant tom-toms that announce the work’s geographical focus, the flute intones a modal melody that arches upward from a rising whole step. The accompanying pizzicato seventh chords are in a different key, giving the blues-like melody a polytonal context. The contrasting short motive that follows, played by the oboe and outlining a G-minor triad, is accompanied by dotted chords fashioned from an octatonic scale. This fragment, which became the opening of Africa‘s first movement, was abandoned, incomplete. When Still returned to it (in 1927), he continued in a strikingly different style. After the opening section, four horns enter with a syncopated, unequivocally tonal melody emphasizing a descending whole step and suggesting a spiritual. Two expansive variations follow, building to the movement’s climactic statement, which begins as a stretching-out of the spiritual melody. The climax breaks off in a short piano cadenza, then dies away with an abbreviated suggestion of the opening.

The middle movement, composed in 1927, forms a serenely legato da capo aria, begun by the bassoon. Near the end of the middle section, the orchestra builds to a climax reminiscent of the moment when the sun rises in Debussy’s La Mer-a nod to Europe from across the Mediterranean, as it were. The final movement, which Still also arranged for Paul Whiteman orchestra, begins with solo for the basses, featuring a deliberately awkward, Varèse-like unresolved rising tritone. It continues with several dances, building excitement to the climactic re-statement of the rising-tritone theme. Although the opening tom-toms from the first movement are never featured again, this movement firmly reinforces the initial African connection.

After the first full orchestral performance (in Rochester, conducted by Howard Hanson on October 24, 1930; Barrère had conducted a cut-down orchestration for his Little Symphony the previous April), Still reported, “Africa was a sensation.” A year or two later, he commented, “I believe Africa will endure.” That it has been so little heard is the result of a contretemps with a publisher that remained unresolved until well after the composer’s death. The edition used in this concert is the 1935 version, made available from a forthcoming volume in the series Music in the United States of America (MUSA).

Soon after Still departed New York in 1934, he came to the aesthetic resolution that marks his third, “universal” style period. He now laid claim to broader ground, choosing to utilize whatever materials he might, though without necessarily abandoning what he called the “Negroid.” The Symphony No. 2 in G Minor: “Song of a New Race,” composed in 1936-7, is an early product of this period. He wrote about it as an extension or evolution of the Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930. If that symphony “represented the Negro of days not far removed from the Civil War,” Still saw the G Minor as representing “the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods” (his own mix.)

Still’s second symphony was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on December 10, 1937. Its characteristically expansive, lyrical string writing seems specifically intended to exploit that orchestra’s famously silky string sound. Near the climax of the first movement, and at key moments elsewhere, the brasses-trumpets and trombones especially, punctuate the texture with gestures suggesting call and response, elements of the African American essence that persistently asserts itself even as blacks were more fully integrated into the wider, more diverse American culture.

Still claimed his right of access to the world of concert music and his unique voice at the moment jazz was emerging as the quintessentially Black artistic expression, just one of the several anomalies in his long and productive career. He took for himself the expressive liberties claimed by (white) modernists but flatly rejected their elitism. The implicit postmodernism of Still’s aesthetic position-diversity of means, more open perspective on distinctions of genre-makes a reconsideration of his achievement especially timely today.

Egard Varèse, Offrandes

By Byron Adams. University of California, Riverside

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“I cannot resist that burning desire to go beyond those limits” wrote the French-born composer Edgard Varèse in 1928. By then, Varèse had already trod a lonely path as a composer of perfectly finished, deeply avant-garde music. Varèse was profoundly rebellious by nature; this streak was exacerbated by his singularly unimaginative bourgeois parents. Varèse reflexively looked toward the future while scorning the past. He once deplored that “the dead govern us . . . their lives, their laws, their traditions weigh us down, poison and enervate us.” Following in the footsteps of that proto-modernist Arthur Rimbaud—whose poetry was translated idiosyncratically by the composer’s wife—Varèse declared his determination to be “absolument moderne.”

Unsurprisingly, Varèse’s music studies were marked by controversy and dissention. Varèse had a knack for turning upon benefactors, an unfortunate trait that would haunt his entire career. He turned on Vincent D’Indy after that redoubtable pedagogue had befriended him, later snarling ungratefully, “I did not want to become a little D’Indy.” The obstreperous young composer sought out such radicals as Erik Satie, and Claude Debussy. Debussy’s work in particular provided the foundation for the younger man’s explorations. For his part, Debussy, who was puzzled by Varèse while intrigued by the younger composer’s daring, gave his colleague a blessing in the form of a proof copy of La mer, inscribed “To Edgard Varèse, in sympathy and with my best wishes for success.”

Always restless, Varèse lived for a period in Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1915, determined to leave old Europe, then in the throes of the First World War, and immerse himself in the machine-driven radicalism of New York. In the bohemian paradise of Greenwich Village, he was exposed to jazz by the Mexican poet Jose Juan Tablada and was introduced to his future wife, Louise. Varèse soon attracted a coterie of admirers, including the great harpist, Carlos Salzedo; the two men founded the ultra-modern International Composer’s Guild, which was funded largely by Gertrude Vanderbilt. The slogan of this pioneering organization was “New Ears for New Music And New Music for New Ears,” and its programs featured the music of such radicals as Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell as well as the first American performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

In 1921, after a stimulating trip to Mexico, Varèse began Offrandes, a setting of two sensuously surrealistic poems by the composer’s friend Tablada and the Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro. Offrandes, which Varèse described as a “very small-scale piece, a purely intimate work,” was scored for solo soprano and an unusual chamber orchestra that included harp and percussion. The premiere of Offrandes was conducted by Salzedo at a concert of the International Composer’s Guild in New York on April 23, 1922. Stunningly interpreted on that occasion by Russian soprano Nina Koshetz, Offrandes was an unqualified success with the (admittedly partisan) audience—the last unalloyed public acclaim that the composer was to enjoy for decades. British musicologist Wilfred Mellers provides a clue to the initial success and enduring fascination of Offrandes when he observes that it “is related to the world of Debussy” and notes astutely that there are “passages where the barriers between musical sound and ‘noise’ are crossed . . . [T]his is not a technical procedure; it is a new (and at the same time very old) musical philosophy.”

Revisiting William Grant Still

03/22/2009 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

Operas, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, art songs, film scores, popular music—William Grant. Still embraced all of America’s music, and ranks among the greatest American composers.

Rivaled only by Leonard Bernstein in the variety of his output, Still trained and worked with the best of the best in creating the sound of the “American Experience.” Hear three of Still’s momentous and varied works in a single program—Darker America, Symphony No. 2, and Africa.

Featuring Jennifer Rivera, Mezzo-Soprano
Enjoy a pre-concert discussion
75 minutes prior to performance in Avery Fisher Hall.

    Concert Notes