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.