William Grant Still
by Andrew Symington. The prominent composer's lesser-known symphony showcases his appreciation for diverse musical influences.
William Grant Still has often been called the “Dean of African-American Composers.” He was the first black person to conduct a major American orchestra and have his work performed by one. Of his five symphonies, four ballets, eight operas, many other orchestral works, chamber pieces, art songs, and choral works, his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” won him notoriety and has sustained his fame to this day. The piece exemplified the composer’s vision of bringing black music, specifically blues, to the symphonic stage. However, shortly after composing the “Afro-American Symphony,” Still developed a more multicultural objective for his music. His much-less-known Symphony No. 4 “Autochthonous” showcases the multi-stylistic and broadly influenced musical identity he maintained the rest of his life. It is a central but underappreciated part of his legacy.
Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895. His ethnic background included African, Native American Indian, Spanish, Irish, and Scotch peoples. Still’s father died while he was an infant. His mother moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas and remarried. His stepfather took him to see stage shows in Little Rock and bought opera recordings for their home phonograph. Still later recalled, “I knew then that I would be happy only if someday I could compose operatic music, and I have definitely leaned toward a lyric style for that reason.”1
Still studied science at Wilberforce University from 1911 to 1915, but preferring music, dropped out before finishing and moved to Memphis in 1916 to try his hand in the popular music industry. His goal was to be a professional classical musician, but that career was not open to black people at the time. He embraced popular music and aimed to benefit from it long-term.
In Memphis, he was captivated by the raw blues music he heard while working as an arranger for blues legend, W.C. Handy. “[Still] heard the Blues, not as something immoral and sexy, but as the yearnings of a lowly people, seeking a better life. Then and there he resolved that someday he would elevate the Blues so they could hold a dignified position in symphonic literature,” Still’s wife, Verna Arvey, wrote.2
Still studied music at Oberlin Conservatory in 1917 and 1919, and then moved to New York City, working for W.C. Handy again. Still’s career in commercial music blossomed for the next decade, yet he never abandoned his goal of becoming a classical composer. He studied composition formally with George Whitefield Chadwick of New England Conservatory during 1922 and with the French-American modernist Edgard Varèse from 1923-25.
Still’s classical compositions were first heard in 1925, and the momentous “Afro-American Symphony” came in 1930. For a year prior, he had been living and working in Los Angeles. The city appealed to him. Still found New York’s over-fondness for the European aesthetic to be at odds with his goal of writing classical but truly American music. Still moved to Los Angeles permanently in 1934 for its cultural diversity, opportunities in film music, and overall atmosphere.
In 1939, he married pianist and writer Verna Arvey, who was of Russian-Jewish decent. They had two children and she ardently promoted his music throughout their marriage. She once depicted Still as “prefer[ing] to live and work simply and quietly at his home in Southern California, where he fills each day with a varied assortment of chores. In the morning, music. In the afternoon, constructing useful objects for the home, tending the plants.”3
In Los Angeles the Still family lived in a segregated black neighborhood, yet their daughter, Judith Anne Still (co-editor of William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music), has said that the family had a racially diverse, supportive group of friends.
Still composed his Symphony No. 4 “Autochthonous” between July 22 and September 8, 1947 in his home in Los Angeles. The word ‘autochthonous’ refers to native origin. The composer meant it to highlight the American spirit represented within the piece.
The fourth symphony opens with a tenacious march with immediately recognizable blues character. The melody which follows exhibits his quintessential lyrical style. The melody is colored with interweaving woodwind notes and fervently propulsive harmony. The second movement begins with murky, dissonant chords, harkening to the tutelage of modernist Edgard Varèse. While Still rejected modernism as a compositional end in itself, he adopted dissonance as a beneficial resource. Before the end of the second movement, gladness shimmers, but the final sustained note is full of melancholy. The jazzy third movement is lighthearted, with snare drum and triangle setting a trotting pace. “Humorous and unmistakably typical of our country and its rhythms,” Still pronounced, according to David Ciucevich Jr. in his liner notes for Naxos’ 2009 recording of the symphony. A gleeful surge led by the trumpets and jaunty bass clarinet solos are also featured. The fourth and final movement is somber and sincere; “the warmth and the spiritual side of the American people—their love of mankind,” Still described, according to Ciucevich Jr. Longing and worry eventually give way to unrestrained chimes ringing out in triumph! Warmth and hope, resembling Still himself, are clearly impressed at the conclusion of the symphony.
The symphony was premiered by Victor Alessandro and the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra on March 18, 1951. Only a single recording is available (Naxos, 2009), but thankfully the symphony has begun to appear on concert programs.
Judith Anne Still quotes her father in William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music: “If I have a wish to express, it would be that my music may serve a purpose larger than mere music. If it will help in some way to bring about better interracial understanding in America and in other countries, then I will feel that the work is justified.”
Andrew Symington is a freelance French horn player and teacher based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Andrew is the author of the blog, “New Symphony Listeners Guide.” The blog aims to draw people into the experience of diverse sounds and emotions found in symphonies of lesser popular stature than those in the standard orchestral repertoire.
From the essay, “Horizons Unlimited,” within the second edition of William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music.
“Memo for Musicologists,” published in William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music (Second Edition).
“William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music,” Second Edition.