Arts Blog

Black History Month: William Grant Still

Since 1976, the United States has officially recognized February as Black History Month, an annual time to recognize the central roles blacks have played in U.S. history and a celebration of the achievements of African Americans in our culture and society. All Classical Portland will be joining the celebration of Black History Month, featuring some of the best recordings of composers of African origin (American, and around the world).


One of the critical values of classical music (and of art in general) is that it allows listeners to hear the world through different lenses. Through their unique set of backgrounds, experiences, and values, composers create works that expose their audiences to humanity’s rich variety of perspectives and cultural traditions. However, as an art that draws from a primarily western European tradition, celebrating diversity is also one of classical music’s greatest challenges to overcome. Even today, black composers remain on the outskirts of the classical music establishment. Social prejudices, as well as other factors, have excluded them from entering the classical canon, which continues to be largely dominated by white, male composers. However, African-Americans have deeply influenced the orchestral tradition in the United States and beyond.


One of the most prominent African American contributors to the history of classical music was William Grant Still (1895-1978), a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and known to his colleagues as the “Dean of Afro-American composers.” Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Still took formal violin lessons and taught himself clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello and double bass. He was interested in pursuing a college music education, but his mother pushed him to study medicine at Wilberforce University in Ohio, concerned that societal limitations would prevent a successful career as a black composer. Nevertheless, Still later dropped out of Wilberforce and entered Oberlin University to study music.

Still had a diverse musical training. He wrote jazz arrangements for blues masters and bandleaders such as Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman and W.C. Handy, but also received formal instruction from composers including George Chadwick of the first New England school, and the French modernist composer Edgard Varèse. Over his career, Still wrote over 150 compositions, including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, choral pieces, and solo vocal works.


Still broke racial barriers and earned many “firsts” in the realm of classical music. He was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States, as well as first to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States. Additionally, Still composed the first symphonic work by a black composer to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra, the Afro-American Symphony, premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931 under the direction of Howard Hanson. On Thursday, February 1st, All Classical will be featuring this work alongside some of the other greatest works by African-American composers.


The Afro-American Symphony fits within the standard framework of a European four-movement symphony but incorporates African American musical idioms throughout the piece. By blending jazz, blues, and spirituals into a traditional classical form and placing them within the context of the concert hall, Still highlights these styles as something to be celebrated, rather than downcast as low class or vulgar music. Let’s explore the ways that Still interweaves these three African American idioms – jazz, blues, and spirituals – into his Afro-American Symphony, with a focus on the first movement.


The Afro-American Symphony is scored for full orchestra, including celeste, harp, and tenor banjo (the piece was the first time a banjo had been used in symphonic music). The symphony has a typical sonata-form first movement, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a fast finale. While Still did not intend the Afro-American Symphony to be an explicitly programmatic piece, his notebooks did include alternate titles for each movement (“Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration”). After completion of the symphony, Still linked each movement to verses from poems by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), which heighten the emotional impact of each movement. Dunbar was one of the first African American poets to achieve a national reputation from both white and black audiences. His accurate portrayals of African American life in the South using folk materials and dialects aptly complement Still’s efforts to interweave African and European traditions in his piece.

For the music itself, the opening movement begins with an introductory melody by the English horn, followed by the first theme played by a muted trumpet, a blues melody adapted from W.C. Handy’s Saint Louis Blues. This tune becomes a prominent centerpiece, reappearing in altered forms throughout both the first movement and the symphony as a whole. We might now think of blues music as any sort of sad, downcast kind of song, but the blues has a rich African American history, beginning as a folk style that developed in the southern United States and becoming a standard genre by the end of the nineteenth century.


Since the 1920s, the blues has helped shape jazz, country music, and rock’n’roll, and many other popular musical genres. Still’s melody has several key features that make it a classic blues tune, including its use of the standard twelve-bar blues harmonic progression, a swung rhythm, and a use of lowered fifth, third, and seventh scale degrees in the melody that imitate “blue” notes. Still was aware that inserting a blues tune into his symphony could cause some listeners to perceive it as unrefined. However, as he writes in his sketchbook, his decision to place the tune at the forefront of the piece reflects his fierce defense of blues as a powerful emblem of African American identity:


“I harbor no delusions as to the triviality of the Blues, the secular folk music of the American Negro, despite their lowly origin and the homely sentiment of their texts. The pathos of their melodic content bespeaks the anguish of human hearts and belies the banality of their lyrics. What is more, they, unlike many Spirituals, do not exhibit the influence of Caucasian music.”


Other elements throughout the movement reflect characteristic features of African American music. Later, for example, the first theme repeats in the clarinet, this time with interjections from other winds. These interjections between short phrases of melody suggest the “call-and-response” style found in much African music. Still also frequently uses syncopation in the melody and accompaniment (rhythms with accents displaced on the weak beat) and chords including both major and minor thirds, further suggesting African American-influenced jazz music.


Also of note is Still’s unusual instrumental timbres. Still groups instruments together to create sounds typical of jazz big bands, including trumpets and trombones with Harmon mutes, drum set effects such as steady taps on the bass drum, dampened strikes on the cymbal, and col legno (on the wood of the bow) rhythms in the violins. All of these factors give a nod to the seminal influence of jazz as the style that became most associated with America between the two World Wars. American classical composers seeking a way to write music that was distinctly “American” took advantage of the new idiom of jazz as inspiration, including George Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, and Leonard Bernstein. Jazz also influenced classical composers in Europe, including Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky.


As the first movement continues to develop the jazzy melodies from the first theme, however, it transitions to a second theme with a melancholy mood, with pentatonic contours suggestive of an African American spiritual. Spirituals originated when slaves heard hymns upon conversion to Christianity and used the hymns as musical models, applying their own ideas to Biblical texts with themes of longing freedom from bondage. Still’s combination of blues and spiritual-influenced music fittingly reflects movement’s subtitle of “Longing” while sharing a core aspect of the African American experience with his audience.

The rest of the symphony continues with this fusion of African American experience into classical European form. The second movement, Adagio (“Sorrow,”) continues with themes that relate to the first movement but carrying on in the spiritual style.  The third movement, Animato (“Humor”), presents a pair themes and variations. Interestingly, several measures into the first theme is a tune that closely resembles Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Did Gershwin get his melody from Still, or was it the other way around? While scholars haven’t reached a decisive conclusion, musicologist Catherine Parsons Smith suggests that Still believed Gershwin had picked up the melodic and rhythmic ideas of the tune from improvisations by Still while playing in the orchestra pit of Shuffle Along ten years earlier. Either way, the melody is a joy to listen to, and in addition to the more fanfare-like second theme the movement echoes the themes of African American emancipation and empowerment in the Dunbar poem attached to the movement. The final movement, Lento con risoluzione (“Aspiration”), begins with a poignant hymn-like section reminiscent of gospel and choral music, and gradually culminates into a lively finale.


The Afro-American Symphony is a compelling reflection of Still’s diverse range of experiences as a composer and musician. Still’s incorporation of three prominent forms of African American music into his piece, the blues, jazz, and spirituals, creates a unique symphonic style that celebrates the complexity and richness of the black experience in the post-Civil War musical era. Since the 1931 premiere of the Afro-American Symphony, Still’s multifarious style has gone on to influence even non-classical music. In 1934, Still moved to Los Angeles, where he composed music for films alongside his classical works, helping shape a style that other composers and arrangers used for scoring films and popular music. The Afro-American Symphony, however, remains as Still’s landmark piece, and remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies by an American composer in the United States. Bringing together a lifetime of musical experiences, it has earned a place in the canon of the Western classical music tradition not in spite of, but because of its daring and creative integration of African American and European idioms.


Hungry for more listening? Music Director John Pitman also has some recommended recordings of Still’s works from All Classical’s music library.  John chose a particular recording of Still’s Symphony  for several reasons:

“The performance, by the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, is especially bright and full of life.  There are also two rare gems by the composer on the CD, and a work by Olly Wilson called Expansions II, which connects Still’s mid-century music to more recent times.  The liner notes are especially valuable, as they include several paragraphs by the composer’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, who has dedicated her life to preserving her father’s important contribution to American music.”

If you are interested in listening to this CD, it can be purchased via this link to When purchasing the CD using this link, All Classical’s programming receives 10% from the sale.


Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more blog posts this month featuring composers, conductors and musicians in celebration of Black History month, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, André Watts, Kathleen Battle and more!



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