Composer Profile: William Grant Still
On November 17, the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra will present William Grant Still's Darker America alongside Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and other works. Not yet familiar with William Grant Still? Read on to learn more about this composer before attending the concert.
Known as the “Dean of African American Composers,” William Grant Still (1895–1978) was a renowned composer and arranger, with numerous commissions from prominent symphony orchestras and conductors to his name. He studied composition at Oberlin College, interrupted by a one-year stint in the US Navy during WWI. In 1919, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a jazz arranger and oboist on Broadway. At the same time, he was studying composition with the ultra-modernist French composer Edgard Varèse. Over the course of his prolific career, he broke numerous racial barriers, accumulating a number of “firsts”: the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (Rochester Symphony, 1931), to conduct a major orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1936), and to have an opera performed by a top-tier company (New York City Opera, 1949), to name a few.
Darker America, composed in 1924, is one of the only pieces to survive from Still's time studying with Varèse. In it, he consciously tries to meld aspects of modernism, such as chromaticism and dissonance, with African American musical idioms such as blues scales and call-and-response forms. Still wrote of the piece, “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.” Still describes three themes—the “theme of the American Negro” in the unison strings, the “sorrow theme” in the English horn, and the “theme of hope” in muted brass—which are developed and eventually come together to signal triumph in the end.
For further listening, we recommend Still's Suite for Violin and Piano.