Tune in this week every day at 1:00pm as we will play selections from William Grant Still’s compositional output.
Monday, February 12: Symphony no.1 "Afro American" (1930, revised in 1969)
Tuesday, February 13: Lyric Quartet (1960) and Yamekraw- A Negro Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (Music by James Johnson; Orchestration by William Grant Still)
Wednesday, February 14; Symphony no 2. "Song of a New Race" (1937)
Thursday, February 15: Selections from the American Scene (1957)
Friday, February 16th: Suite for Violin & Piano (1943) and The American Suite (c.1918)
William Grant Still was born in Mississippi in 1895 and showed a keen interest in music early on. His mother wanted him to be a medical doctor, so he began studying at Wilberforce University to become a doctor. The allure of music was too great however, and Still dropped out of Wilberforce University to study at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he became a student of Edgar Varese, and George Whitefield Chadwick.
Upon graduation, he ended up performing with renowned jazz musicians such as Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, and Artie Shaw. Still took his knowledge of jazz and we he learned formally at Oberlin, and used these skills to become a successful arranger of popular music. He ended up working for NBC Radio, where he would re-unite with Paul Whitman.
His career flourished and eventually he would become the first African-American composer to conduct his own works with a major symphony orchestra. In 1936 he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert made up of his own compositions. Still’s Symphony no 1 the “Afro-American Symphony” would go on to be one of the most performed American Symphonies in the first half of the twentieth century.
It was in Los Angeles where still began to arrange music for Hollywood films, such as “Pennies From Heaven,” and “Lost Horizon.” Eventually he would become disillusioned with Hollywood, in particular 20th century Fox, because of the way they degraded people of color.
William Grant Still would compose close to 200 works, including nine operas, five symphonies, and four ballets. His works would be performed in his lifetime by orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra. With the orchestras led by such renowned conductors as Sir John Barbirolli, Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, and Howard Hanson.
Throughout his life, he would be bestowed many honors, including three Guggenheim Fellowships, several honorary Doctorates in Music, and in 1977 his home in Los Angeles was designated a Historical-Cultural Monument.
Want to find out more about William Grant Still, and his music? Check out the conversation Chris Wolf had with renowned violinist Zina Schiff who knew William Grant Still, and performed in ensembles that he conducted. Schiff is joined in the conversation by her daughter the Conductor Avlana Eisenberg. The three of them talk about a fairly new recording that Schiff and Eisenberg have recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra featuring Still’s music.
Also check out the conversation Chris had with Karla Donehew Perez of the Catalyst Quartet, to find out more about the remarkable and gorgeous ‘Lyric String Quartet’ of Still. (Time marking 8:08 in the video)