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.