William Grant Still (1895–1978), one of the most versatile American composers, wrote more than 150 works in his lifetime. He built a career in a predominantly white world of classical music, bringing the African American voice to an industry that didn’t fully accept composers of color.
An Individual Style
Still blended African American and popular traditions with his European classical music training, crafting his individual style while creating authentically American classical music. Many types of musical traditions are interwoven in his orchestral works, from blues harmonies and jazz idioms to call-and-response passages, reminiscent of African American spirituals. His strength as a composer gave him a solid platform for amplifying the need for racial equality and social justice, including the 1949 opera Troubled Island, a collaboration with leading Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Still also voiced a desire for a fully integrated society, saying once that “For me, there is no white or Black music—there is only music by individual men that is important if it attempts to dignify all men, not just a particular race.”
A Long List of Firsts
A true individual, Still defied social stereotypes his entire life. He became known as the “Dean of African American composers” because of his long list of firsts: the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. In fact, his Symphony No. 1 (titled Afro American Symphony) was played by major orchestras more than any other symphony by an American composer until the 1950s. Although he received numerous awards and prestigious commissions, it should be noted that he also encountered discrimination because of the color of his skin. He wrote a song for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but he wasn’t allowed to attend the fair without police protection. Despite a successful premiere of his opera Troubled Island, it was closed after only three performances (an act that many suspect was racially motivated).
Still Relevant Today
Still’s voice may be more relevant today than ever before. He was a strong voice that amplified African American culture in classical music and broke through barriers imposed by a predominantly white industry. He also maintained an ideal of a fully integrated American society that manifested itself in his unique style of authentic American classical music.
As you prepare to hear William Grant Still’s “Summerland” from Three Visions at the Houston Symphony’s Live from Jones Hall concert on Saturday, August 8, listen to this William Grant Still playlist. It will be evident that this composer deserves to be a household name in 2020.