Five of the best pieces of music by William Grant Still
14 May 2021, 10:24
We celebrate some of the finest musical masterpieces of the ‘Dean of Afro-American Composers’.
William Grant Still (1895- 1978), dubbed the ‘Dean of Afro-American Composers’, composed a rich range of symphonies, operas and other works – totalling over 150.
He made history as the first Black conductor of a major US orchestra, taking to the podium in front of the LA Phil on 23 July 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl, and was the first American to have an opera produced by New York City Opera.
Grant Still contributed prolifically to American music, arranging pop and film music, and playing in pit bands and for recordings. He received an honour for Outstanding Service to American Music from the National Association for American Composers and Conductors, and had a raft of honorary doctorates to his name.
Here’s where to start with his masterful music.
‘Afro-American’ Symphony No. 1
Representing one of many historic firsts William Grant Still instigated in his remarkable lifetime, his Symphony No. 1 was the first work by a Black composer to be played by a major US orchestra, when Rochester Philharmonic performed it in 1931.
Six years later saw the historic occasion on which Grant Still conducted the work himself at the Hollywood Bowl. The composer weaves influences from jazz and spirituals into a classical form to tell the history, experience and struggle of Black life in America, to powerful effect.
Africa is Grant Still’s three-movement symphonic tone poem from 1930. The movements are titled ‘Land of Peace’, ‘Land of Romance’ and ‘Land of Superstition’, and explore the composer’s race and cultural heritage in richly-scored, evocative melodies.
Suite for Violin and Piano
Like Africa (above), William Grant Still’s Violin and Piano Suite explores his heritage.
The first movement of three, ‘African Dancer’ features lively, syncopated rhythms and jazzy inflections, whilst ‘Mother and Child’ is lyrical and soulful. And the final movement, ‘Gamin’, picks up with energetic, driving melodies and interplay between the violin and piano once again.
William Grant Still was a prolific opera composer. He wrote eight operas, and Troubled Island made history as the first by an American composer to be performed by the illustrious New York City Opera.
The work is set in 1791 Haiti and tells the story of Jean Jacques Dessalines leading the rebellion of a group of enslaved people against white aggressors. The libretto was started by poet Langston Hughes and completed by writer and pianist Verna Arvey, who Grant Still would later marry.
Sahdji is a short, two-part ballet, composed by Grant Still in 1930.
The work explores a hunting festival and tragic choices between sacred faith and earthly love faced by the real-life North Central African Azande tribe. The music is rich and cinematic, painting a sumptuous background for the dramatic choreography and action that unfolds.
Hear William Grant Still’s music played on Chi-chi’s Classical Champions from 23 May onwards, and during other programmes on Classic FM.