STILL: Piano Music
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William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Long known as the doyen of Afro-Americancomposers, William Grant Still was born on 11th May,1895, in Woodville, Mississippi to musical andscholarly parents of African-American, NativeAmerican, Spanish, Irish, and Scotch heritage.
Following the death of Still's father when William wasonly a few months old, the family moved to Little Rock,Arkansas, where the young Still began his musicaleducation with violin lessons from a private teacher anda stack of Red Seal opera recordings bought for him byhis stepfather.
Still attended Wilberforce University, spending histime there conducting the band and learning to play thevarious instruments in it, as he made his first attempts tocompose and orchestrate. His subsequent studies atOberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at firstthrough his father's legacy, and later through ascholarship established just for him by the faculty. Aftergraduating, he began his professional career playing inorchestras and orchestrating music, particularly for theviolin, cello, and oboe. Some of the legendarymusicians he worked with include Paul Whiteman,Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, and Sophie Tucker, and forseveral years, he arranged and conducted the DeepRiver Hour on CBS and WOR radio.
Later study included a period at the New EnglandConservatory of Music and an individual scholarshipwith the ultra-modern composer Edgard Var?¿se. In the1920s Still made his first appearances as a seriouscomposer, receiving Guggenheim and RosenwaldFellowships, and several important commissionsincluding CBS, the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair,Paul Whiteman, the League of Composers, and theCleveland Orchestra. Other honours included thejubilee Prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra(1944), the Freedoms Foundation Award (1953), and aprize from the U.S. Committee for the United Nations,the N.F.M.C., and the Aeolian Music Fund for hisorchestral work The Peaceful Land, cited as the bestmusical composition honouring the United Nations(1961).
Still received countless honorary degrees fromseveral prestigious universities, including HowardUniversity, Oberlin College, Pepperdine University,and Peabody Conservatory. In addition, he was awardednumerous trophies and citations from organizationssuch as the American Federation of Musicians, theNational Association of Negro Musicians, the Phi BetaSigma George Washington Carver Award, the RichardHenry Lee Patriotism Award, and a citation from thegovernor of Arkansas. He also lectured at variousuniversities from time to time, and was a distinguishedmember of ASCAP, the American Society ofComposers, Authors and Publishers.
Among his many distinctions, Still was the firstAfrican-American to conduct a major symphonyorchestra in the United States (the Los AngelesPhilharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936), the firstAfro-American to conduct a White radio orchestra inNew York City, the first Afro-American to have anoperatic work produced by a major company in theUnited States (Troubled Island at the City Center ofNew York in 1949), and the first person of Colour tohave an opera televised over a national network. Hewrote over 150 compositions, including operas, ballets,symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of folkthemes, as well as instrumental, choral, and solo vocalworks.
The compositions for piano on this recording are,truly, visions of life; more specifically, they are visionsof African-American life and history. Through thesevisions, the composer depicts the positive nature andprogress of a courageous people, from the Africancradle of civilization, to a glorious future in the afterlife.
In Africa, the dark-skinned peoples are seen as thefirst humans, having begun to evolve three million yearsago. They thrive in a place of peace and romancebecause they have a close relationship with the Divine.
After millions of years, they are taken into slavery andsent to other locales, until the Civil War ends theirphysical bondage. Amid the ruins of A DesertedPlantation, where once they toiled in chains, they facetheir new freedom with thanks to the Creator, and with ajoyful ability to dance, to sing, and to find love in theface of hardship.
During the century following the Civil War, theAfrican-American people struggle to gain respect fortheir talents, meeting adversity with a mixture ofsadness, longing and bravery that is the essence of TheBlues. Their affection for God and for Creation helpsthem in their struggle, and they see God as a gentle butexacting power in their lives, whose nature has sevendistinct characteristics. These characteristics are onlyfaintly visible to human kind - they are, in fact, seenonly in nature as Seven Traceries. The spiritual personof Colour understands these \traceries," or traces, ofGod's influence, and, as always, this awareness ofdivinity is best expressed through his music.
Ultimately, their intimate relationship with theCreator leads Afro-Americans to understand, not onlylife on earth, but also life after death. William GrantStill's Three Visions are the composer's explanation ofwhat happens to individuals, regardless of skin colour,when their time on earth is over. All are judged. Noblepersons, who achieve in spite of obstacles and bigotry,find blessings and advancement in the realm of thespirit. The end of this recording, then, brings the proud,accomplished person of colour to a reward and to avindication, and it brings the listener to a final vision oftriumph, magnificently developed and presented byAmerica's peerless creative talent, Afro-Americancomposer William Grant Still.
Three Visions is a suite for piano written by Still forhis wife, Verna Arvey, who first played the compositionin Los Angeles in 1936. The three segments of the suite,Dark Horsemen, Summerland, and Radiant Pinnacle,tell the story of the human soul after death: the bodyexpires, and the soul goes on to an apocalypticjudgment. If it is seen that the past life has been a goodone, the soul may enter "heaven," or "Summerland".
After a period of time, the soul may reincarnate to learnadditional earthly lessons on the human plane. Somesouls reincarnate many times in a constant circularprogress toward Godly perfection.
The seven tone poems in the suite Seven Traceries,Cloud Cradles, Mystic Pool, Muted Laughter, Out ofthe Silence, Woven Silver, Wailing Dawn, and A Bit ofWit, are mystical in both sound and intent. According tothe composer's daughter, they are actually sevenmusical portraits of God; they present to the hearer the"seven faces" of Divinity. The composer describes thevarious attributes of the Higher Power in terms of thenatural landscape. In clouds, in pools, and in the risingsun, God is portrayed as a nurturer, as a teacher, as ahumorist, as a stern commander, as a dazzling beauty,as an enthroned glory, and as a lighthearted onlooker. Inall of these descriptions, William Grant Still's deepreverence for the pictorial as well as for the spiritual isthe cord that binds the seven little tone pictures togetherinto a haunting and profound landscape.
The Blues is a segment from the Still-Arvey ballet,Lenox Avenue, which was first heard on CBS Radio on23rd May, 1937. This is gut-deep music, impelled bythe hard-hitting rhythms and rolling-bass of NewYork's Harlem in the 1920s. It is, perhaps, Still's mostmemorable rendering of the Negro idiom.
A Deserted Plantation was written by Still for PaulWhiteman's Orchestra, and Whiteman gave the firstperformance it in the Metropolitan Opera House in NewYork City on 15th December, 1933. The work wasaccompanied by excerpts from Paul Laurence Dunbar'spoem The Deserted Plantation. The version of the suitewhich is included on this recording is the piano partfrom the orchestral score. The beauty of this musicwhen played on the p