William Grant Still: Symphony no. 1 in A flat, ‘Afro-American’

performed by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

second, third and fourth movements

(cover image by Kent Henderson)

George Gershwin won’t make it into the series, he has plenty of fame already. For a genius jazzy symphony, here’s something you should give an ear to.

Later to be known as “the dean of African-American composers,” William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi. Both his parents were teachers, but his father also worked as a bandleader and was part owner in a grocery store. He passed away when his son was only three months old.

As a result, Mrs. Still moved from Mississippi to Little Rock, Arkansas. She continued teaching there, and remarried. Her new husband, Charles B. Shepperson, nurtured the young boy’s interest in music by taking him to operettas and buying him records.

Still grew up in Little Rock, and it was here that he began his formal musical training, beginning with the violin at age 15. In addition, he taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bass, cello and viola. Ambitious young man for sure.

He actually began his studies in medicine, pursuing a degree at Wilberforce in Ohio, but eventually decided to focus on music. He earned a scholarship to Oberlin, where he studied with people like George Whitfield Chadwick, and later with Edgard Varèse, of all people.

Instead of talking about his career path, I’d like even more to talk about the remarkable number of firsts that Still racked up in his career, either as an American composer, an African American conductor, or any combination of those.

In 1936, he was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra, taking the podium with the L. A. Philharmonic. In 1955, he was the first African American conductor to lead an orchestra in the Deep South, with the New Orleans Philharmonic. His works were performed not only in America, but also by such renowned institutions as the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, and the Tokyo Philharmonic. He was also the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. His first symphony was the first work by an African American composer to be performed by a leading orchestra, and “until the 1950s,” says Wikipedia, was “the most widely performed symphony composed by an American,” citing a biography of the composer by Dr. Edith Borroff. He was also the first African American to have an opera performed on national television.

Wow. (On a side note, as this article mentions, the first African-American conductor ever to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic was Rudolph Dunbar, who did so in 1945 with a performance of Still’s first symphony, the first performance of the work in that city, likely in the whole country. It may also have been the European premiere, but I can’ be sure.

Each of the four movements has poems from poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and subtitles from the composer given to it, and I won’t reproduce them here. They can be found in this section of the Wikipedia article.

The symphony begins unmistakably jazz-like. After a few long notes, maybe reminding us of Dvorak, the background color afforded by the orchestra when they enter sets the music awash in shades of jazzy blues. As if we hadn’t already gotten the message, a muted trumpet picks up this bluesy melody, and the symphony is underway. It’s sensual and rich and irresistible. Not only does Still know how to write a blues progression and sumptuous harmonies, he also has an impeccable feel for orchestration and texture.

Aside from this perfectly iconic blues sound, which Still handles easily as well as his fellow jazzy countryman Gershwin, there’s also a sense of longing in the first movement in certain passages, and the subtitle for this movement was indeed ‘Longing.’ The development is enticing and really goes somewhere, but comes back around for a cool, smooth close.

The second movement, marked adagio, feels rather like a continuation of some of the softer, richer passages of the first movement, that ‘languishing in the summer heat on a night in the South’ kind of sound. It’s also maybe a little bit like film music, in that it seems almost background, building a large, warm backdrop for a few brief solo passages, from double reed, a brief solo violin, clarinet. It’s clearly related to the first movement, and only after some of these more intimate utterances does the whole orchestra give us a few phrases. It’s overall the least convincing of the four movements, still nice, but feels more like echoes of the first movement, leading us into the ‘animato’ third movement.

After the lush languor of the second, the instant change of atmosphere is welcome. It’s not a scherzo, but has bounce, and crunch, and some very satisfying roars from brass, almost parade-like in places. It’s the shortest of this symphony, at only about three minutes. It doesn’t go wild, but reaches the kind of conclusion that an average listener may mistakenly think is the place we should start clapping. But it isn’t.

The finale is the longest movement of the work, and opens with a sweeping, epic gesture that sets an entirely different, serious mood for what we’ve heard. It’s a big tune, but more than just pretty harmonies; this seems to carry some (more) weight. Flute lightens the mood, recalling material from the first movement, but I do feel almost as if we were kind of drawn into this work, seduced even, by the first three movements, and only now does the real heart of the piece come through. It’s a bit darker; there’s more tension, and Still marked this movement ‘lento, con risoluzione,’ with resoluteness (?), and we can hear it.

But it doesn’t go out on a melancholy note. The final section (coda?) of this movement, rounding out the symphony, is lively, colorful, and masterfully handled, up to the triumphant, quite epic ending. Still gives us an apparently straightforward symphony, something very easy to listen to, but it continues to show layer after layer of harmony and color, all the way up to its surprisingly stern ending.

There’s an Americanness about this symphony that stems unmistakably from the sounds of jazz and imagery of early 20th century America, something refreshingly devoid of references to war. Even with its more melancholy moments, there’s an overall welcoming sense of carefreeness to this symphony, a traditional, legitimate four-movement form, but also sumptuously melodic and easy to listen to.

This is just one example of American composers drawing from their surroundings, as we saw last week with Charles Ives and his folk tunes, or Amy Beach drawing from her (not really American) heritage with the Gaelic symphony. Jazz is a big part of American music, and was especially so in the ’30s. We’ll continue to see this drawing from different aspects of American identity, but Still’s symphony is undeniably the jazziest in our lineup. I’ve purchased his other four symphonies, although I hear that this might be his best. We’ll see.

Do stay tuned for much more American music, and thank you for reading.

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