This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of William Grant Still, the pioneering black symphonist. Still, who died in 1978, has been called "the dean of Negro composers," and for many years his was the only black voice to be heard in the world of "serious" classical music.
Earlier this month the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Still's "Archaic Ritual" (1946), a musical evocation of an ancient religious ceremony. His best known work is "Afro-American Symphony" (1930), a large orchestral piece in which the composer consciously employed themes derived from Negro spirituals and jazz to create a uniquely American idiom.
In this respect, Still's career paralleled that of his great contemporary George Gershwin, who was an early champion of the composer's music. Like Gershwin, Still won renown as a creator of "popular" music before gaining recognition as a "serious" composer. And like Gershwin, he refused to be satisfied with mere commercial success.
William Grant Still was born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi. His father died shortly afterward, and Still's mother moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to work as a a teacher. Still grew up in modest but comfortable circumstances, attending school where his mother taught and absorbing the early musical influences of his grandmother's singing and his stepfather's record collection.
Still's mother also insisted that he take violin lessons. But years later, she reproached him bitterly when he declared his intention to become a professional musician, an occupation she considered disreputable.
So he enrolled at Ohio's Wilberforce University instead, intending to become a doctor. But his passion for music continued; finally, he quit school to work in a theater orchestra in Columbus, Ohio.
Several lean years followed. Then Still landed a job in Memphis, Tennessee, as an arranger and band member for W. C. Handy, already famous as "the father of the blues." He traveled throughout the South with Handy's band, and the experience left a deep impression on him.
"He did not see the blues as an immoral or sexy outpouring, as many people then seemed to think of it, but as something that expressed the yearning of a lowly people, a poignant appeal for solace and hope with little promise of fulfillment," wrote Verna Arvey, Still's wife, librettist and biographer. 'In the blues, he discerned a distinct and unmistakable musical form [that] in later years he was to elevate and present in symphonic dress as no one before or since has done."
Back in Ohio, Still used money left to him after his stepfather's death to enroll at Oberlin Conservatory. In 1921, Handy offered ,, him another job in New York, where he also found work playing in Eubie Blake's orchestra, then engaged with the hit Broadway musical "Shuffle Along," the show said to have launched the African-American cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance.
When the show toured Boston, Still took the opportunity to enroll in the New England Conservatory, where he resumed composition studies under George Chadwick. Chadwick, an early advocate of American music, encouraged Still to work out his own style of expression rather than imitate the European masters -- a lesson Still took to heart.
Back in New York, Still became director of a black-owned recording company, a post that enabled him to meet the leading African-American artists, writers and musicians of his day. He also won a scholarship to study composition with Edgar Varese, the French-American ultramodernist whose dinner guests included such illustrious European masters as Arnold Schoenberg, Ottorino Respighi and Leopold Stokowski, all of whom offered valuable advice and encouragement.
Still established himself as one of New York's most original songwriter-arrangers and embarked on a successful commercial career. But he continued to regard what he did for a living as secondary to his true avocation. Starting in the 1930s, he began producing the steady stream of symphonies, ballets, chamber music and art songs on which his reputation today rests.
In doing so he created a uniquely American symphonic idiom. His friend Howard Hanson, who conducted the premieres of many of the composer's works, said Still's example "proves that music which has its roots deep in the human heart is the most personal, the most national, and also the most universal." Hanson's words could well serve as epitaph for this home-grown genius, whose stature seems destined to grow with each year that passes.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.