The life and career of the African-American composer William Grant Still certainly qualifies as the quintessential American success story. Often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on 11th May, 1895, to a family of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch blood. Still�s father, the town bandmaster, died when William was three, precipitating a move to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Still�s mother was a teacher. There Still had his first musical experience, studying the violin. At his mother�s urging he began medical studies but dropped out as music exerted a stronger pull. He initially worked as an arranger for several popular performers including W.C. Handy, composer of the immortal St Louis Blues, and Artie Shaw, whose hit Frenesi he orchestrated. Music study at Oberlin was interrupted by naval service in the First World War. After the war Still moved to New York, working for Handy and playing the oboe in pit orchestras while he studied composition with the conservative George Chadwick and the ultra-modernist Edgar Var�se. Still arrived in New York at the perfect time, actively participating in the cultural awakening of African-Americans in the 1920s, a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. His attention turned to classical composition for good in the late 1920s. A move to Los Angeles in 1930 to arrange for Paul Whiteman expanded his horizons into film and radio while initiating his compositional maturity and most prolific period. That year also saw the creation of his Symphony No. 1 �Afro- American� which has sustained his reputation and remains his most popular and frequently recorded work.
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Still achieved many �firsts�: first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra (1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro-American); first to conduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic); first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955, New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera produced by a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New York City Opera) and first to have an opera broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend, PBS). Still received many honours including the Guggenheim fellowship, honorary doctorates from Oberlin among others and the key to his home state in 1975. He died in Los Angeles on 3rd December, 1978.
Still�s most distinctive works are nationalistic, using African-American forms such as the blues, spirituals and jazz in addition to other ethnic American musics. After a flirtation with avant-garde techniques early in his career, Still returned to a neo-romantic idiom with lyrical melody and traditional harmony. His work retains a freshness that has immediate appeal.
Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the �Afro-American� Symphony that established Still�s reputation worldwide. It was first given in 1931 by that indefatigable champion of his fellow composers, Howard Hanson, with the Rochester (NY) Symphony. It rapidly established itself in the repertoire, including the New York Philharmonic performance at Carnegie Hall and performances by 34 other American orchestras in the 1930s alone. Still succinctly described his goals in writing the work: �I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.� After the work�s completion, Still appended verse by Paul Lawrence Dunbar to illuminate the mood of each movement. A deeply religious man, he inscribed the work (as he did each of his works) to God, �the source of all inspiration�.
The first movement, Longing, begins with the principal melody, an original twelve-bar blues melody stated by the English horn. The instrumental colour cannot fail to bring to mind the nostalgic solo for the same instrument in Dvoř�k�s New World Symphony. Still submits this melody to thematic transformation throughout the work in the Lisztian tradition with great craftsmanship. Throughout this movement, the essential three-chord harmonic structure of the blues acts as a powerful underpinning to moods of brooding and exultation. The second theme in the oboe represents another major genre of African-American music, the spiritual. A vigorous development of these materials leads to their recapitulation in reverse order. The final appearance of the blues theme, fully orchestrated, leads to an affirmative ending in the major. The slow movement, Sorrow, depicts the strength of an oppressed people, bloodied but not broken. Solo oboe over flute and string accompaniment presents the main theme. The blues theme of the first movement reappears later in the flute, vacillating between major and minor. Slowly rolled harp arpeggios accompany a transformation of the oboe theme. Both themes return in reverse order to close the movement. The third movement fulfills the traditional scherzo function. Entitled Humor, it is the most popular of the four movements and is often performed independently. The third major genre of African-American music, dance music, which encompasses ragtime and jazz, is celebrated with distinctive syncopated cross-rhythms and �backbeat� figures. The use of the banjo (the first use of the instrument in a symphony) adds local colour to the festive atmosphere. A tune vaguely reminiscent of Gershwin�s I�ve Got Rhythm appears here. Still�s melody predates Gershwin�s, the tune being improvised by Still in the 1920s while performing in the Broadway show Shuffle Along. As contemporaries who moved in the same circles and admired each other�s work, Still and Gershwin consciously and unconsciously influenced each other. The finale, Aspiration, provides a noble peroration as it unites the themes and style of the previous movements, demonstrating that a distinctive American voice in music is intrinsically tied to the musics and contributions of African-Americans.
The brief orchestral work In Memoriam was the most successful of a group of works on patriotic themes commissioned by the League of Composers during the Second World War. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic on 5th January, 1944, with Artur Rodzinski conducting. The New York Times critic Olin Downes remarked on its powerful �simplicity and feeling, without affectation or attitudinizing�. The wording of the title does carry an ironic aspect, reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fighting for world freedom and civilisation abroad while being denied those very freedoms at home.
Africa is one of Still�s grandest achievements. This symphonic poem in three movements had a tortuous genesis. Still began work on it in 1924, envisioning it as the first part of a trilogy of works depicting the African- American experience: Africa representing their roots, the Afro-American Symphony life in America, and Symphony No. 2: Saga of a New Race, a vision of an integrated society. Still originally wrote the work for chamber orchestra, dedicating it to the eminent French flautist George Barr�re, the dedicatee of Var�se�s Density 21.5, who gave the first performance with the Barr�re Little Symphony in 1930. Constantly refining the work, Still re-orchestrated it for full orchestra. Again, Howard Hanson gave the second premi�re on 24th October, 1930, in Rochester, New York. It aroused a sensation, in Still�s words. It had successful German and Parisian performances the following year, further establishing his reputation. Still, however, was not totally satisfied, revising it six times before he, strangely, withdrew the work, leaving it unpublished.
In Africa Still creates an imagined view of African history in the fashion of the exoticized orchestral works of Rimsky-Korsakov. The first movement, Land of Peace, has two themes, depicting the pastoral and spiritual. Movement two, Land of Romance, reflects sadness, moving to passionate longing at the end. The finale, Land of Superstition, expresses, in the words of Still�s wife Verna Arvey �unspoken fears (and) lurking terrors�.
Reviews. . .These performances from the Fort Smith Symphony are excellent, committed, and excellently prepared under John Jeter's direction; he seems really under the music's skin, which is demonstrated in comparison with Neeme JÃ¤rvi's Detroit Symphony recording for Chandos of the Symphony. The latter is perfectly fine; it's simply that Jeter seems more alive to Still's particular personality. . . . This Naxos release is a winner, and is very well recorded. - Colin Anderson, Fanfare, June 2005