American musician William Grant Still could boast of many firsts. In 1935, his Symphony No. 1 was the first symphony by an African American composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. Then in 1936, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, making him the first black man to conduct a major American orchestra.
William Grant Still was also the first African American composer to have an opera staged by a major company. Still’s opera Troubled Island was performed by the New York Opera in 1949. Because of these firsts, as well as his other achievements, other African American composers nicknamed Still “The Dean.”
Still eventually wrote over 150 pieces of music, including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of African American spirituals.
From Medicine to Music
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1895. After his father died, he and his mother moved to his grandmother’s home in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his mother worked as an English teacher. Still’s mother eventually remarried. Still’s stepfather, a postal clerk, was a fan of opera and would play his stepson recordings of his favorites. He would also take him to see concerts by famous touring musicians. When Still was 14, he started taking violin lessons. Eventually, he would go on to teach himself clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello, and double bass.
After he graduated from high school, Still’s mother advised him to study medicine because she was worried about the lack of opportunities for African American musicians. He enrolled at Wilberforce University in 1911. Although preparing for a career as a doctor, Still spent most of his time conducting the college band, writing music, and learning to play more instruments.
He left Wilberforce and went to Oberlin University to study music. His musical studies were interrupted in 1918 when Still enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Unfortunately, at that time, blacks didn’t have many opportunities in the military and were usually limited to working in food service positions. However, once it became known that Still was an accomplished musician, he was asked to play violin for officers’ meals on the U.S.S. Kroonland.
Jazz, Blues, and Symphonies
Still’s Navy service ended in 1919. Although he returned to Oberlin briefly, he soon moved to New York City to work with pioneering American blues musician W. C. Handy as a performer, arranger, and road manager. Since he was comfortable with both classical music and jazz, Still went on to write music for noted jazz musicians Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman. “It was my good fortune,” Still said, “to be a part of the jazz world when I was young, and when jazz itself was new.”
As much as he enjoyed blues and jazz, Still preferred the classical world. Inspired by black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Still decided to focus on writing concert music and operas. He won a scholarship to study with the innovative composer Edgard Varèse. Varèse used his own reputation to advance his talented pupil’s career, presenting Still’s compositions in concerts by the International Composer’s Guild.
While Still considered Varèse to be his most important teacher, he ultimately thought that the composer’s approach was too modern for his own tastes. “I soon began to feel that this ultra-modern idiom was not expressing me, so I decided to develop a racial idiom that would,” Still said.
The Afro-American Symphony
In the 1930s, Still lived in Los Angeles, California, where he wrote music for films and television. At the same time, Still continued to give serious attention to his own symphonic, chamber, and vocal music. Still began writing his Symphony No. 1 in 1930. The piece is better known by the name the Afro-American Symphony. His symphony reflected his classical training as well as his work with jazz bands.
Still said, “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.”
In 1933, the third movement of the Afro-American Symphony was performed in Berlin, Germany, by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was reported that the audience was so moved that they insisted that the orchestra play it again immediately. The New York Philharmonic gave the symphony its New York premiere in 1935 at Carnegie Hall. Still’s reputation received another boost when noted conductor Leopold Stokowski played the fourth movement of the symphony on a national tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Still’s later works continued to focus on the lives of blacks in American society, including the ballets Sahdji and Lennox Avenue as well as the operas The Troubled Island and Highway No. 1, U.S.A. He also went on to be a leading figure in the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Still collaborated with some of the best African American writers of his day. He set the words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen to music.
Throughout his career, Still continued to receive honors. He received honorary doctor of music degrees from the Peabody Conservatory, Howard University, and the New England Conservatory of Music. Still, who died in 1978, was posthumously inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
“I am sure my racial heritage [is] apparent,” Still wrote in 1955, “because it is a part of me, and whatever I am shows in the music I write.”
Hear works by William Grant Still at American Public Media.
Discover more works by black composers at the Guardian.
Images and Sources
William Grant Still Photo: Library of Congress
William Grant Still Photo License: Public Domain
William Grant Still 1936 Photo: Maud Cuney-Hare
William Grant Still 1936 Photo License: Public Domain