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William Grant Still

Male | Composers

Popularly referred to as "the Dean of African-American Composers", William Grant Still has been almost universally recognized for his contributions


Popularly referred to as "the Dean of African-American Composers", William Grant Still has been almost universally recognized for his contributions to American music regardless of his race. He is known to have been enamored of the voice, having written some nine operas and several remarkable songs. Jazz influences are to be found in the richness of his harmonic vocabulary. Individual songs like "Citadel," "Grief," and "Winter's Approach" bear out this finding. Little known is his song cycle From the Hearts of Women, from poetry of his wife and oft-times collaborator, Verna Arvey. Still's career as a composer extended from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. Perhaps his most influential compositions stem from his involvement in the Black Nationalist era (c. 1920 - 1940). During this period, he wrote his Afro-American Symphony, which is probably his best known work. From this same period comes the song cycle Songs of Separation.

This setting of five songs by various Black poets (Bontemps, Philippe Thoby Marcelin, Dunbar, Cullen, and Hughes; all are African-American with the exception of Marcelin, who is Haitian) was published in 1949 by Leeds Music Corporation. It is now available through William Grant Still Music, Flagstaff, Arizona. It can be performed by medium high voices; a male voice may be preferable.

Singing these songs requires a fecundity of emotion. They convey a story "in which a protagonist moves through irony, bitterness, and despair to a restorative search for a new love" (Friedberg 1981, 105). The singer and pianist must work in perfect ensemble in order to project the different atmospheres required of the poetry and music. At times, the writing for the voice "shows some operatic influence, as befits its dramatic orientation, but nevertheless retains the compression and intimacy of the art song" (Friedberg 1981, 105). The construction of the cycle is palindromic. Songs I and V are written in a quasi-arioso style, with melodic vocal lines which range from expansive contours to recitative. Songs II and IV are similar in their chordal treatment of the accompaniment. Both evoke a hushed atmosphere. Song III is unlike any of the others. The poetry is a limerick by Dunbar and the musical treatment is that of a joke. The cycle is fulfilling for all parties concerned. The singer and pianist are presented with beautiful, challenging music, and the audience is treated to some of William Grant Still¹s best writing in the art song genre.





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A Black Pierrot

William Grant Still is recognized as one of the great American composers. His compostional output encompasses all forms, including twenty-five or more works for large orchestra, five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, eight larger works for voice and orchestra, more than a dozen chamber compositions, many pieces for keyboard and accordion, art songs, music for radio groups and soundtracks of films and television. Among his best known works: Afro-American Symphony, Songs of Separation, Plainchant for America, Seven Traceries, The Little Song that wanted to be a Symphony, and three ballets - La Guiablesse, Sahdji, and Lenox Avenue. Operas making their way into the repertoire include Costaso, A Bayou Legend, and Highway 1, USA.

Still's music draws upon folk idioms in a style referred to as neo-romantic. His Afro-American Symphony, performed by the Rochester Philharmonic under Howard Swanson (1931), brought national recognition to Still and was the first symphonic work to use blues and jazz, as well as being the first of its kind to employ the banjo. Still is popularly referred to as "Dean of African-American Composers" for his pioneering efforts in music. His music education was obtained at Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory. His teachers were George W. Chadwick, and Edgard Varese. He played violin in college, played in the pit orchestra of Shuffle Along, worked as an arranger for W.C. handy, bandleaders, and others.

Source: Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters;

  A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa:Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

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