• Grant Gilman

A Universal Composer — William Grant Still

Updated: Jul 30

“The contradictions with which Still struggled shaped his remarkable creative output in ways we need to understand, as much today as during his lifetime.”
—Carolyn L. Quin

It seems especially difficult to summarize the life and career of William Grant Still. At the simplest, Still performed, conducted, composed, orchestrated, and arranged music, earning him the title “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. But what he was as a man is so much deeper and more complex. His compositions give us a brief glimpse of his personality and philosophy (and I am grateful for that). Beyond this, Still’s words and those effected by him do a meritorious job in striving to complete the picture of the man. Yet, in the end, he is too multidimensional to be easily labeled.


Still began as a performer and arranger for W.C. Handy, the self proclaimed “Father of the Blues.” This association brought Still to Harlem in 1919, during a pivotal moment in American history, at the peak of the “Harlem Renaissance.” Though the Harlem Renaissance would lay a foundation for the Civil Rights movement roughly 30 years later, at the time it was as an explosion of African American art and philosophy after the Civil War and during the period when “Jim Crow” laws were sweeping the South. It was a time of individuality, self assertion, and rich expression in the face of current segregation and oppression, while slavery was not just a memory for most.

Still was absolutely unique at this moment, as the most well-known—and often the first—African American to compose works in the European art music fashion. Other African-American “firsts” for Still included having a symphony performed by a professional orchestra, conducting a major symphony orchestra, and having an opera performed by a major opera company. That label of “first” is tricky, needing a broader view to the context and implication. Musicologist Gayle Murchison (with whom I was a colleague at the College of William & Mary) addresses this issue of duality:

The title “Dean of Afro-American Composers” is Still’s due. Yet it does not aptly describe his accomplishments or the artistic and aesthetic ideals he pursued in his work. Such a title is easily bestowed on Still, who crossed many racial barriers during a period in American history when the achievements of African Americans were measured by firsts as a marker of racial progress and improvement in race relations. But to see him in this way is to accord him a place in American music history largely on the basis of his race and to consider only one facet of his accomplishments.

After all, Still was a genius, and should be recognized for that at any moment in history. We have no further to look for proof of this than the compositions themselves.

Still began as a performer and arranger for W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed “Father o. At the simplest, Still performed, conducted, composed, orchestrated, and arranged music, earning him the title “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. But what he was as a man is so much deeper and more complex. His compositions give us a brief glimpse of his personality and philosophy (and I am grateful for that). Beyond this, Still’s words and those affected by him do a meritorious job in striving to complete the picture of the man. Yet, in the end, he is too multidimensional to be easily labeled. current segregation and oppression, while slavery was not just a memory for most. mind for a long period, having begun composition in 1924, and philosophically tied in with the Harlem Renaissance. Writing to George Barrère, the conductor to premiere the work, Still gives insight into the programmatic content:

An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore, and influenced by his contact with American civilization. He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.

Once again, and especially in Still’s case, there is not nearly enough room here to explore his music exhaustively. Fortunately, recordings and concert programming for Still’s works have increased in the past few decades. As this trend continues—or increases—we are primed for many more magical moments from Still’s known and unknown music.e opening drum beats and flute solo, the hypnotic bluesy rhythms, the easy downward slide of chromatic movement in the strings, to the often celebratory mood of the last movement. As in his other orchestral works, especially his five numbered symphonies, Still shows complete mastery of orchestration and suitable timbre use for every instrument, section, and combination thereof. Like all other great composers, his adeptness in this area is so deft that one does not even think of it while enraptured in the moment.

Once again, and especially in Still’s case, there is not nearly enough room here to explore his music exhaustively. Fortunately, recordings and concert programming for Still’s works has increased in the past few decades. As this trend continues—or increases—we are primed for many more magical moments from Still’s known and unknown music.


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