By Ricky O’Bannon

Throughout February, we will highlight the work of one of the often under-celebrated African-American contributors to the history of classical music.

William Grant Still’s legacy is remarkable both for the barriers he broke and the inventive works he wrote that blended European art music with African-rooted popular and folk music.

Born in Mississippi in 1895 and raised in Arkansas, Still was a gifted musician who took formal violin lessons and taught himself to play clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello and double bass. Despite his interest in music, his mother advised him to study medicine in college out of concern for the societal limitations for black composers. 

William Grant Still
William Grant Still

Still took his mother’s advice but eventually dropped out of Wilberforce University because there was no opportunity to study music. He continued his music education at Oberlin University.

Still had a combination of musical training that would influence him throughout his career. He wrote jazz arrangements for Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman and W.C. Handy, but he also was tutored by leading American classical minds in George Whitefield Chadwick of the first New England School and the French-born electronic pioneer Edgard Varèse.

Still synthesized his musical experiences into a career that saw many firsts for African-American composers. He was the first black man to conduct a major American orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major company as well as the first to have an opera performed on national television. Still was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and earned the nickname of “the Dean” from other African-American composers. 

Darker America (1924)

Throughout his career, Still regularly wrote about the challenges facing America’s black citizens in contemporary society. Darker America was a major step for Still in his early orchestral career. Musically it marks a middle path between the lighter symphonic jazz arrangements of contemporaries like Gershwin or Whiteman and the dissonant experiments of white modernist composers of the time.

Darker America is a tone poem that Still wanted to show the serious side of black music and “the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer.” The opening melody in the strings is Still’s “American Negro theme” followed by themes representing sorrow, hope and a prayer of “numbed rather than anguished souls.” Over the course of the tone poem that opening theme is transformed and finally triumphs. While Still later looked back at Darker America as an immature work, it gained him recognition and was a major step for Still finding his own musical perspective that was influenced by but separate from previous tutors and collaborators.


Afro-American Symphony (1930)

Afro-American Symphony was a milestone in Still’s career as it was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra.. The symphony blends jazz, blues and spirituals into a traditional classical form, which elevates that music as something to be celebrated. While Gershwin and others might have given jazz some respect and a place in the concert hall, the blues was seen as low class and vulgar music.

The symphony brings together a lifetime of musical experiences for Still — the spirituals he heard his grandmother sing him as a child, the Realist influence of mentor George Chadwick who sought to portray the lives of down-to-earth, common people, and the pride and cultural activism of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet another indication of the balance Still found between European and African music traditions is the movement titles. Each is titled with traditional classical names in “Adagio,” “Moderato assai,” “Animato” and “Lento,” but Still’s notebooks include alternate movement titles such as “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor” and “Aspiration.”


Troubled Island (1939)

The left video is actually a selection of an aria from Still’s second opera Bayou Legend to give a sense of his operatic style. Recordings and repeat productions of Troubled Island are rare, but the opera is significant both for Still and historically for several reasons. The opera tells the story of the former slave Jean Jacques Dessalines who led the Haitian revolution. The libretto was started by Langston Hughes, but Hughes left the project to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. Verna Arvey, who later became Still’s wife, finished the opera’s libretto.

Hughes had been looking for a composer to collaborate with on an opera for some time before finding Still, and the project represents a collaboration between two leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. The opera was premiered by the New York Opera Company in 1949 (a decade after its completion), and it was the first work by an African-American composer to be performed by a major opera company.