By Theo Bently Curtin
Lauded as the “Dean of African-American Classical Composers”, William Grant Still (1895-1978) was a renowned figure of the early-to-mid 20th century, whose works attracted widespread enthusiasm. He was also a person of note in the Harlem Renaissance movement; an artistic, intellectual and social awakening of African-American culture focused in Harlem, New York in the 1920s.
Still grew up in Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and went on to study with the great French composer, Edgar Varèse. He initially worked for some time as a freelancer on the New York commercial music scene in pit orchestras and as an arranger, which eventually lead to his original compositions being heard. Best known for his Afro-American Symphony (premiered in 1931, it was the most performed symphony of any American composer before 1950), Still composed many symphonies and operas, as well as music for ballets, chamber music, and arrangements of black spirituals which his Grandmother sang to him as a child.
“Still was a pioneer […] he was able to create music capable of interesting the greatest conductors of the day: truly serious music, but with a definite American flavor”
It is interesting to see how little is known of Still and his beautiful sound world in the UK today. Take, for example the “Phantom Chapel” for strings and piano, the simple melodies of the violin miniature Mother and Child, or the opening bars to the “radiantly ideal” symphonic poem, Africa. There is a kind of honesty in his music; it is actively reaching out to engage the listener. It is both fresh and reminiscent, forward-looking yet fostered by the harmonies of Impressionism and jazz. Its themes are poignantly relevant to ongoing issues around racial injustice, begging the question of what caused it to be thrown it into such relative obscurity? Why do we not celebrate Still alongside the greats?
Still was subjected to severe racial prejudice throughout his career, which continuously hampered his efforts for recognition. There is a particularly striking extract from the programme note to Troubled Island, Still’s opera, premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949. It was the first black-composed work to be produced by a major opera company in the United States, and its premiere received no fewer than 22 curtain calls; but was cancelled after three shows following muted reviews from the critics: “Howard Taubmann (a critic and friend of Still) came to [him] and said ‘Billy, because I’m your friend I think that I should tell you this – the critics have had a meeting to decide what to do about your opera. They think the colored boy[sic] has gone far enough and they have voted to pan your opera.’”
Still had limited success with his compositions thereafter, although he continued to write music and conduct into old age. Still died, impoverished, in 1978 at the age of 83. His career and musical legacy was, and continues to be stifled by racial prejudice; listeners of Still’s music have been quick to point out that he was heavily influenced by the likes of George Gershwin (seen as the pioneer of American classical-jazz fusion). However, advocates of the composer state differently – that Gershwin in fact owed a lot of his compositional style to Still.
At this time of global change and the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, we must all work to create a more accepting, unprejudiced world of classical music; one where Still would receive the legacy he so clearly merits.