Ranked among the greatest American composers, William Grant Still was nicknamed the “Dean of African American Composers” for the many firsts he achieved during his substantial career. He was the first African American to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra (Symphony No. 1 performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931); conduct a major American orchestra in his own music (Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936); and have an opera performed by a major opera company (Troubled Island performed by the New York City Opera in 1949) and nationally televised (Bayou Legend televised in 1981).
Though more well-known today as a symphonist, he embraced all of America’s music, composing and arranging a variety of works from film scores, art songs and popular music to symphonies, operas, concerti, and chamber music. Still flourished in his compositional career; during a time when Jazz was the epitome of Black artistic expression, he managed to forge a difficult path and claim his right of access to the world of classical music. Still utilized the expressive liberties claimed by White modernists while rejecting their elitism and conveyed the struggles of being a Black person in America through his music—an experience that was quite uncommon within the primarily White realm he was navigating.
Presently, while diversity in classical music has improved, the reality is still bleak especially for composers. A difficult hurdle to maneuver once a work is completed is getting a significant orchestra or ensemble to premiere it, granting the composer exposure and further access in an already exclusionary field. Additionally, many Black composers were historically confined to the Jazz or Blues genres—if not outright ignored—with the assumption that the Black experience and sound was monolithic. As a result, many Black composers—historically and contemporarily—have gone largely unnoticed and forgotten.
Listen today to hear our recordings of three landmarks from the great William Grant Still’s composing career that represent aspects of three of his self-described style periods…and if you can make it, join us on September 12 in Sewell, NJ to hear a chamber program curated by ASO’s Philip Payton to celebrate and explore the significant contributions Black composers have made to classical music, including mesmerizing works by contemporary composers Jessie Montgomery and Trevor Weston.
Text adapted from concert notes for Revisiting William Grant Still.
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“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.”
In attempting to represent matters African—a compelling topic for artists in the 1920s—Still confronted the aesthetic gulf between the exploitative primitivism so prevalent among 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. Even though he struggled for over a decade while writing Africa, Still’s distinctive aesthetic and artistic integrity manifests itself as compellingly as the overarching idealism of its purpose.
Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Song of a New Race
An extension of his first Symphony, Afro-American Symphony, Still’s Symphony No. 2 (1937) served to represent “the American colored man of today,” a vision and hope for an integrated society. This theme is manifested in the characteristically expansive nature of the piece and is further highlighted through his use of the brass section to express a call and response dialogue—which is common practice in African American churches and folk songs.
Still’s Darker America (1924) was both his first extended piece and indicator of his success as a concert music composer. Premiered in 1926, Still reflected on the depth of his intentions for the piece noting that it “is representative of the American Negro, and suggests triumph over sorrows through fervent prayer.” The opening theme of this tone poem features “the American Negro” in the strings, a “sorrow theme” in the English horn, a theme of “hope” in the muted brass, and a prayer of “numbed rather than anguished souls” in the oboe. As the rest of the piece unfolds, the listener can bear witness to the development of the theme from sorrow to triumph.
Composed by William Grant Still
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director