William Grant Still
About this Piece
Known during his lifetime as “the dean of African American composers,” William Grant Still composed symphonies, operas, chamber music, choral works, solo songs, and concertos. Over his six-decade career, Still worked as a performer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, and composer.
Still attended Wilberforce College, the oldest private HBCU in America, and later Oberlin College, studying composition with George Whitefield Chadwick. During the 1920s, Still also worked privately with composer Edgard Varèse. Under Varèse’s mentorship, Still met influential musicians and conductors, heard his own works performed, and expanded his compositional horizons.
A Black man who took pride in his race and refused to be limited by it, Still had a career peppered with Black American “firsts”: the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra; the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra (Still led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert of his own compositions at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936); the first to have an opera produced by a major company (New York City Opera presented Troubled Island in 1949); and the first to see one of his operas televised on a national network.
In the early 1950s, Still’s professional life derailed. A vocal anti-Communist, he publicly denounced Paul Robeson, whose Communist affiliations had made him an ongoing target for vindictive anti-Communist and racist attacks. By vilifying Robeson, Still alienated himself from the Black community, as well as from liberal whites who had formerly championed his work. As a result, Still’s music was effectively blacklisted by record companies, orchestras, opera companies, the media, and the Black community for the next 30 years.
Still wrote the following notes for Darker America, his first orchestral work: “Darker America, as its title suggests, is representative of the American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer. At the beginning, the theme of the American Negro is announced by the strings...Following a short development…, the English horn announces the sorrow theme, which is followed immediately by the theme of hope, given to muted brass accompanied by string and woodwind. The sorrow theme returns, treated differently, indicative of more intense sorrow, as contrasted to passive sorrow indicated at the initial appearance of the theme. Again hope appears, and the people seem about to rise above their troubles. But sorrow triumphs. Then the prayer is heard (given to oboe); the prayer of numbed rather than anguished souls. Strongly contrasted moods follow, leading up to the triumph and of the people near the end, at which point the three principal themes are combined.”
Eugene Goossens led the first performance at Aeolian Hall in New York on November 22, 1926.
© Elizabeth Schwartz