Still, William Grant 1895–1978
William Grant Still 1895–1978
Often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, William Grant Still is noted in the history books for the series of “firsts” he achieved—he was the first black composer to have a symphony performed by an American orchestra, the first black composer to have an opera performed by a major company, and the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic), among others. Also worthy of note were Still’s efforts in the sphere of popular music; his compositions and arrangements spanned the range of genres that formed the basis for the modern black popular music industry. In the whole history of African-American music, Still was one of the figures who thought most deeply about how to reconcile his African heritage with the European forms that dominated American concert life.
Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on May 11, 1895, into an extremely well-educated family by any standard. His father, William Grant Still Sr., a college-educated math professor and bandmaster, died in Still’s infancy. His mother, Carrie Lena Fambro Still, was a teacher. She took her son, her only child, to Little Rock, Arkansas, after the elder Still’s death, and there she married again. Her second husband upheld the cultured atmosphere and took Still to classical vocal concerts. In high school Still studied the violin, and at age 16, urged on by his mother, he enrolled at Wilberforce University as a pre-medical student.
There his musical talents blossomed. He mastered several orchestral and band instruments, conducted the school’s band, organized a concert of his own compositions, and formed a string quartet featuring himself as cellist. He began to think about a career as a classical composer—an option not even on the horizon for African Americans at the time—after the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor came to Ohio on a U.S. tour. To his mother’s dismay, Still’s career at Wilberforce came to an end after he was accused of an improper intimate relationship with a female student, Grace Bundy. The two married in 1915 and had four children, but they were never really happy together; they separated in 1931 and divorced in 1939.
Making things even worse from Still’s mother’s point of view was that Still now began to make a living by
At a Glance…
Born on May 11,1895, in Woodville, MS; died on December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles, CA; son of William Grant Still Sr., a math professor, and Carrie Lena Fambro Still; married Grace Bundy, 1915 (divorced 1939); married Verna Arvey, a concert pianist, 1939; four children. Education: Attended Wilber-force College, Wilberforce, OH, 1911-15; attended Oberlin College, Wilberforce, OH; studied with composers George Chadwick and Edgard Varèse, 1920s. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy in World.
Career: Became staff arranger, Pace and Handy publishing company, 1919; associated with International Composers’ Guild, New York, mid-192Os; Afro-American Symphony premiered by Rochester Symphony Orchestra, 1931; moved to Los Angeles, 1934; wrote music for films, 1930s; opera Troubled island premiered, New York City Opera, 1949; wrote music for children later in life.
Selected awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1933; numerous honorary doctorates
performing ragtime and jazz, which she despised. At first the young family struggled in various Ohio cities, but in Columbus Still impressed the great southern blues bandleader and arranger W. C. Handy. Still worked for Handy in Memphis for a time, toured with his band, and penned arrangements of the Handy standards “St. Louis Blues” and “Hesitation Blues.” Handy provided Still with employment on and off for several years.
Still spent a year in the Navy in 1918, and further musical studies at Oberlin College stimulated his interest in the classics once again. In 1919 he was drawn to New York by a steady job as a staff arranger for Handy’s Pace and Handy publishing firm. He found plenty of work writing arrangements for theater orchestras and performing—he was part of the original orchestra for the all-black musical hit Shuffle Along and worked as musical director for the Black Swan record label. But Still continued to seek out teachers who could challenge him in the classical field. He took composition lessons from the American nationalist composer George Chadwick when Shuffle Along went on tour to Boston in 1922, and from 1923 to 1925 he studied with the highly experimental French-born composer Edgard Vèrese in New York.
Along with these varied influences, Still was very much aware of the ideas of Harlem Renaissance thinkers who had begun to investigate the links between African and African-American culture. Now Still had the musical tools to fuse all these influences into major classical works. Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild provided Still the opportunity to have some of his works performed in the 1920s, and in 1931 the Rochester Symphony Orchestra performed Still’s Afro-American Symphony —the first performance by a major orchestra of a symphony composed by a black American. The work remains Still’s best known; it featured a mosaic of African-American motifs that included not only spirituals but also blues, jazz, and call-and-response elements. It was also the first symphony to use the banjo as part of the orchestra.
According to the Duke University Library website, “Still’s Afro-American Symphony was, until 1950, the most popular of any symphony composed by an American.” It touched off a period of sustained success for Still; works such as his orchestral suite The Deserted Plantation found performances at major venues (the Paul Whiteman Orchestra performed that work at the Metropolitan Opera House). His ballets La guiablesse (1927) and Sahdji (1929, with a story by Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke) were danced by both black and white artists. Nor did Still abandon popular forms; he wrote the score for the Bing Crosby film Pennies from Heaven after moving to California in 1935.
Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and other prestigious awards, Still was able to spend more and more time composing. In 1939 he remarried; his second wife, Verna Arvey (who later wrote a biography of Still), was a Jewish concert pianist, and he wrote the piano collection Seven Traceries and other piano music as a result. Several of Still’s works of the 1940s were rooted in serious events of the day and gained wide renown; his 1940 choral cantata with narrator, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, evoked the violence directed at the Southern black population, and the orchestral In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1943) was one of several World War II-themed works he composed.
Still’s most ambitious undertaking of the 1940s was the production of his opera Troubled Island, with a libretto by Langston Hughes. Still worked on the opera for several years, and its premiere at the New York City Opera on March 31, 1949, marked the first time an opera composed by an African American had been performed in a major house. In the 1950s and 1960s Still’s music fell out of favor as academic musicians prescribed the adoption of strict modernist styles. Although Still’s music was considered too crowdpleasing by some critics, Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski called him one of America’s greatest composers.
Still wrote mostly instructional music and music for children in the later stages of his career, expressing the hope that he might thereby foster intercultural understanding. He died of a stroke in Los Angeles on December 3, 1978. A reawakening of interest in his music was signaled by a Public Broadcasting Service telecast of his opera Bayou Legend in 1981 (another first for a black composer). In 1987 National Review critic Ralph de Toledano wrote that “in his great outpouring of music—some two hundred compositions in every category—Still expressed the sweep and melody of this country, the pounding heart of jazz, the surging human protest of the blues, and the attenuated sensibility of popular song.” By the end of the twentieth century, new recordings and performances of Still’s compositions were bringing his music to light once again.
La guiablesse, ballet, 1927.
Sahdji, ballet, 1929.
Afro-American Symphony, 1931.
And They Lynched Him from a Tree, cantata, 1940.
In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for
Democracy, for orchestra, 1943.
Troubled Island, opera, 1949.
Arvey, Verna, In One Lifetime, University of Arkansas Press, 1984.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of American Music, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
National Review, March 13, 1987, p. 57.
http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/sgo/exhibit/captions/caption1.html (Duke University Library)
—James M. Manheim
"Still, William Grant 1895–1978." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/still-william-grant-1895-1978
"Still, William Grant 1895–1978." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/still-william-grant-1895-1978
William Grant Still
William Grant Still
William Grant Still (1895-1978) has been called the dean of African American composers. Throughout his distinguished career he composed in many styles, frequently utilizing black motifs.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. In his early years he took violin lessons and was exposed to a wide variety of music, ranging from spirituals and hymns to opera. He majored in science at Wilberforce University but soon found himself composing, arranging, and conducting the school band. He decided to become a composer and studied at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory.
After serving in the Navy during World War I, Still went to New York City to work in W. C. Handy's music publishing company. He participated actively in the musical world, playing jazz and directing the Black Swan Phonograph Company. In addition, he studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, who proved to be an important mentor.
During the 1920s Still began to compose serious concert works. Among these were Darker America (1924) and From the Land of Dreams (1925), the latter work showing the influence of Varèse. When Howard Hanson led the Rochester Philharmonic in a performance of Still's Afro-American Symphony in 1931, it marked the first time a symphonic work by a black composer was performed by a leading symphony orchestra. The work later received hundreds of performances in the United States and abroad. As the composer noted, "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." The Afro-American Symphony was the second part of a symphonic trilogy, consisting also of Africa (1930) and the Symphony in G Minor, subtitled Song of a New Race (1937).
During the 1930s Still worked as a free-lance arranger and a staff composer for network radio. He orchestrated musical comedies and wrote for outstanding personalities such as Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman. In 1934 a Guggenheim fellowship enabled Still to devote himself entirely to composition. His first opera, Blue Steel, was based on the story of a black worker and incorporated African-American folk music. Another "first" in Still's career occurred in 1949, when the New York City Opera Company presented his second opera, Troubled Island; this was the first time that a leading opera company produced a work by an African-American composer.
Still composed background music for motion pictures and television, including the film Pennies from Heaven and the television show Gunsmoke. This versatile composer also wrote ballets, chamber music, many solo songs and spirituals, and choral works. His later works, such as ThePrince and the Mermaid (1966), continued to indicate his originality within conventional modes of expression.
Still's career was replete with musical scholarships and honorary degrees in music. In 1971, he received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Arkansas. In 1976, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Still with a scroll for his "extraordinary contributions to the literature of symphonic music, opera, ballet, chamber music, songs and solo works."
Still was producing or revising earlier works even while in his late seventies. He was saluted on his 75th birthday with an all-Still concert by the Oberlin (Ohio) Orchestra, which presented the world premiere of his Symphony No. 5, Western Hemisphere. This four-movement piece was originally composed in 1937, and revised in 1970. In 1974, Opera/South in Jackson, Mississippi, presented the world premiere of Still's A Bayou Legend, originally composed in 1941. The libretto was written by Still's wife, Verna Arvey. This opera was later performed in Los Angeles in 1976 as part of the U.S. Bicentennial celebration and Black History Week, and was telecast on Public Broadcast Service (PBS) in 1981.
Columbia Records released a new recording of Still's Afro-American Symphony in 1974. The next year, Still was honored on his 80th birthday at the University of Southern California with a program of his works. In 1977, Opera Ebony revived Still's two-act opera Highway 1 USA in New York.
Still died on December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles. The William Grant Still Community Arts Center was dedicated in Los Angeles shortly before his death, and a memorial concert featuring his key compositions was presented at the University of Southern California in May 1979. Still's accomplishments clearly placed him among the foremost composers of his day.
The only book written on Still was by his wife, Verna Arvey, in William Grant Still (1939). It was a valuable, short source work but stopped at 1939. A good survey of Still's career through 1971 was found in Eileen Southern's, Music of Black Americans (1971). □
"William Grant Still." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-grant-still
"William Grant Still." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-grant-still
Still, William Grant
William Grant Still, 1895–1978, American composer, b. Woodville, Miss. Still was of Native American, African-American, and European ancestry. He studied music at Oberlin, with Chadwick at the New England Conservatory, and with Edgar Varèse. Much of his music reflects his African heritage. Among his works are four ballets, five symphonies, and seven operas. His opera Troubled Island (1941) is set to a libretto by Langston Hughes.
See his essays (ed. by R. Haas, 1972).
"Still, William Grant." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/still-william-grant
"Still, William Grant." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/still-william-grant
Still, William Grant
"Still, William Grant." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/still-william-grant
"Still, William Grant." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/still-william-grant