The Genius of William Grant Still

Called “the Dean of African-American composers”, William Grant Still (1895–1978) worked in all genres of music – from jazz to Broadway musicals to modern classical music (he studied in New York with Edgard Varèse, who encouraged Still to find his own voice as a composer, explore his black heritage and exploit his talent for melody). Still achieved many firsts for an African-American – the first to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra; first to conduct a major orchestra; first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South; first to have an opera (‘Troubled Island’) produced by a major company; and first to have an opera (‘A Bayou Legend’) broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981).

Like his contemporary George Gershwin, Still successfully mixed the idioms of jazz with classical music. In his Suite for Violin and Piano, the third movement contains a syncopated violin line and a jazz piano style called stride. His African-American Symphony is infused with the blues of the Deep South. More subtle than Gershwin’s ‘Broadway jazz’, Still used the African American elements not simply for orchestral colour but places them at the heart of the work. The symphony boasts rich harmonies, brilliant orchestration, jazz-inflected rhythms in a work which can easily stand up against the best of the genre. There is sweetness and sadness, depression and joy, and a beautiful, heart-rending finale. His piano music, notably Three Visions, demonstrates his remarkable talent for blending and contrasting colours to support a melody with wonderful subtlety, and the spiritual qualities of this music, most evident in ‘Summerland’, are on a par with the late piano music of Beethoven or Schubert.

Still’s musical language was not bound to one genre, nor did he set out to write distinctly “African-American” music, and he firmly believed that one should be a master of all styles. Some of his music displays distinctly modernist idioms, especially that written in the latter part of his life, while his experiences as an orchestrator and pit musician informed his later compositions and led to his success in both popular and art music.

The SSO is thrilled to perform Still’s Symphony No 1 on February 10th as part of our concert Roaring Twenties – see it live or stream it from home!

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