STILL: In Memoriam / Africa / Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American'
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William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Symphony No. 1 'Afro-American' (1930)
In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1943) Africa (1930)
The life and career of the African-Americancomposer William Grant Still certainly qualifies as thequintessential American success story. Often referred toas the dean of African-American composers, Still wasborn in Woodville, Mississippi on 11th May, 1895, to afamily of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch blood.
Still's father, the town bandmaster, died when Williamwas three, precipitating a move to Little Rock, Arkansas,where Still's mother was a teacher. There Still had hisfirst musical experience, studying the violin. At hismother's urging he began medical studies but droppedout as music exerted a stronger pull. He initially workedas an arranger for several popular performers includingW.C. Handy, composer of the immortal St Louis Blues,and Artie Shaw, whose hit Frenesi he orchestrated.
Music study at Oberlin was interrupted by naval servicein the First World War. After the war Still moved toNew York, working for Handy and playing the oboe inpit orchestras while he studied composition with theconservative George Chadwick and the ultra-modernistEdgar Var?¿se. Still arrived in New York at the perfect time,actively participating in the cultural awakening ofAfrican-Americans in the 1920s, a period known as theHarlem Renaissance. His attention turned to classicalcomposition for good in the late 1920s. A move to LosAngeles in 1930 to arrange for Paul Whiteman expandedhis horizons into film and radio while initiating hiscompositional maturity and most prolific period. Thatyear also saw the creation of his Symphony No. 1 'Afro-American' which has sustained his reputation andremains his most popular and frequently recorded work.
Like many African-Americans of his generation,Still achieved many 'firsts': first African-American to havea symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra(1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro-American); first toconduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic);first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955,New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera producedby a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New YorkCity Opera) and first to have an opera broadcast ontelevision (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend,PBS). Still received many honours including theGuggenheim fellowship, honorary doctorates fromOberlin among others and the key to his home state in1975. He died in Los Angeles on 3rd December, 1978.
Still's most distinctive works are nationalistic, usingAfrican-American forms such as the blues, spirituals andjazz in addition to other ethnic American musics. After aflirtation with avant-garde techniques early in his career,Still returned to a neo-romantic idiom with lyricalmelody and traditional harmony. His work retains afreshness that has immediate appeal.
Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the'Afro-American' Symphony that established Still'sreputation worldwide. It was first given in 1931 by thatindefatigable champion of his fellow composers,Howard Hanson, with the Rochester (NY) Symphony.
It rapidly established itself in the repertoire, includingthe New York Philharmonic performance at CarnegieHall and performances by 34 other American orchestrasin the 1930s alone. Still succinctly described his goals inwriting the work: 'I knew I wanted to write a symphony;I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wantedto demonstrate how the blues, so often considered alowly expression, could be elevated to the highestmusical level.' After the work's completion, Stillappended verse by Paul Lawrence Dunbar to illuminatethe mood of each movement. A deeply religious man, heinscribed the work (as he did each of his works) to God,'the source of all inspiration'.
The first movement, Longing, begins with theprincipal melody, an original twelve-bar blues melodystated by the English horn. The instrumental colourcannot fail to bring to mind the nostalgic solo for thesame instrument in Dvořak's New World Symphony.
Still submits this melody to thematic transformationthroughout the work in the Lisztian tradition with greatcraftsmanship. Throughout this movement, the essentialthree-chord harmonic structure of the blues acts as apowerful underpinning to moods of brooding andexultation. The second theme in the oboe representsanother major genre of African-American music, thespiritual. A vigorous development of these materialsleads to their recapitulation in reverse order. The finalappearance of the blues theme, fully orchestrated, leadsto an affirmative ending in the major. The slowmovement, Sorrow, depicts the strength of an oppressedpeople, bloodied but not broken. Solo oboe over fluteand string accompaniment presents the main theme. Theblues theme of the first movement reappears later in theflute, vacillating between major and minor. Slowlyrolled harp arpeggios accompany a transformation of theoboe theme. Both themes return in reverse order to closethe movement. The third movement fulfills thetraditional scherzo function. Entitled Humor, it is themost popular of the four movements and is oftenperformed independently. The third major genre ofAfrican-American music, dance music, whichencompasses ragtime and jazz, is celebrated withdistinctive syncopated cross-rhythms and 'backbeat'figures. The use of the banjo (the first use of theinstrument in a symphony) adds local colour to thefestive atmosphere. A tune vaguely reminiscent ofGershwin's I've Got Rhythm appears here. Still'smelody predates Gershwin's, the tune being improvisedby Still in the 1920s while performing in the Broadwayshow Shuffle Along. As contemporaries who moved inthe same circles and admired each other's work, Stilland Gershwin consciously and unconsciously influencedeach other. The finale, Aspiration, provides a nobleperoration as it unites the themes and style of theprevious movements, demonstrating that a distinctiveAmerican voice in music is intrinsically tied to themusics and contributions of African-Americans.
The brief orchestral work In Memoriam was themost successful of a group of works on patriotic themescommissioned by the League of Composers during theSecond World War. It was first performed by the NewYork Philharmonic on 5th January, 1944, with ArturRodzinski conducting. The New York Times critic OlinDownes remarked on its powerful 'simplicity andfeeling, without affectation or attitudinizing'. Thewording of the title does carry an ironic aspect,reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fightingfor world freedom and civilisation abroad while beingdenied those very freedoms at home.
Africa is one of Still's grandest achievements. Thissymphonic poem in three movements had a tortuousgenesis. Still began work on it in 1924, envisioning it asthe first part of a trilogy of works depicting the African-American experience: Africa representing their roots,the Afro-American Symphony life in America, andSymphony No. 2: Saga of a New Race, a vision of anintegrated society. Still originally wrote the work forchamber orchestra, dedicating it to the eminent Frenchflautist George Barr?¿re, the dedicatee of Var?¿se'sDensity 21.5, who gave the first performance with theBarr?¿re Little Symphony in 1930. Constantly refining thework, Still re-orchestrated it for full orchestra. Again,Howard Hanson gave the second premi?¿re on 24thOctober, 1930, in Rochester, New York. It aroused asensation, in Still's words. It had successful German andParisian performances the following year, furtherestablishing his reputation. Still, however, was nottotally satisfied, revising it six times before he,strangely, withdrew the work, leaving it unpublished.
In Africa Still creates an imagined view of Africanhistory in the fashion of the exo