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A Music Moment with William Grant Still

October 4, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” he began to study the violin at age 14 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments, including the cello and oboe. In 1911, Still entered Wilberforce University in Ohio. There, he gained valuable experience conducting the University band and producing his first attempts at composition and orchestration. Inspired by the career of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Still decided to become a composer of concert music and opera. He left Wilberforce University in 1915 and began working as a freelance performer and arranger for many of the top bands in the Ohio region, eventually developing an association with W.C. Handy for whom Still made his first published arrangement.

Still’s education continued off and on throughout the 1920s briefly studying theory and counterpoint Oberlin College. He also spent some time studying composition with George Chadwick at New England Conservatory and privately with experimental composer Edgard Varèse, who became Still’s most influential teacher and advocate for programming his compositions on concerts of the International Composers’ Guild, an organization which he helped found in 1921.

William Grant Still’s had many “firsts” in his career. He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 “Afro-American” (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece’s New York premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1935. He also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. In the world of opera, his Troubled Island was the first by an African-American to be performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera, 1949) and that same opera was the first by an African-American to be nationally televised.

Although William Grant Still did not write a large quantity of works for solo voice and piano, Still set many of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen to his music. His most ambitious work for voice and piano is the song cycle “Songs of Separation” which sets poetry by Dunbar, Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Haitian poet Philipps Thoby-Marcelin (in French). In the cycle, Still sets five poems of diverse authorship with a common literary theme and constructs a unified musical framework around the poems. Still wrote over 150 compositions (well over 200 if his lost early works could be counted), including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of folk themes, especially Negro spirituals, plus instrumental, choral and solo vocal works


Concert-Lecture #1 “A Music Moment with William Grant Still”

Date: Sunday, October 4, 2020
Location: Salvaged by Love

Time: For upcoming concert time and dates, follow Music of the Unsung America on facebook


October 4, 2020
6:00 pm
Event Categories:


The Theater
United States


Portia Dunkley
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