While listening to WDPG Discover Classical Radio, I heard the program host say that the lovely piece I’d just heard, a work by composer William Grant Still, had been chosen in honor of Black History Month. I am embarrassed to admit that until that moment, I had no idea that Still was black, that he has an Ohio connection, or that his work is deemed to have changed American classical music forever; here is some of what I learned about this amazing man.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Miss., in 1895 to two school teachers; his father, who also performed as a local bandleader, died when his son was only three months old. His mother moved to Little Rock, Ark., and remarried in 1904; William’s stepfather nurtured the boy’s interests in music, as did his maternal grandmother. While the grandmother sang African-American spirituals for her grandson’s enjoyment, Charles played classical music recordings in their home and accompanied the aspiring musician to a wide range of local musical performances.
After beginning violin lessons at the age of 15, Still taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, obviously displaying a deep interest in music. However, his mother wanted William to go to medical school, so the young man enrolled at Ohio’s historic Black college, Wilberforce University, in pursuit of the goal of becoming a doctor. While there, he learned to play additional instruments, started to compose, and conducted the university band, eventually leaving without graduating to enroll at Ohio’s prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Struggling financially, the earnest student worked at several jobs, but was unable to afford the study of composition; however, his abundant skills were recognized by Oberlin faculty, who gave composition instruction free of charge to the talented young man who eventually received three Guggenheim Fellowships in music composition.
Still’s musical education expanded beyond the academic; he worked as an arranger for popular bandleader Paul Whiteman and for blues composer W.C. Handy during the 1920s, while also composing his earliest orchestral works. William Grant Still also kept busy playing in pit bands and arranging for recordings by popular musicians like singer Sophie Tucker and clarinetist Artie Shaw and also arranged movie scores, including Dimitri Tiomkin’s composition for the 1937 film Lost Horizon.
When his first major orchestral composition, Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American,” was performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, it was the first time the complete score of a work by an African-American was performed by a major orchestra. The seemingly ever-busy composer then went on to become the first Black conductor in American musical history to lead a major U.S. orchestra when he conducted two of his own works at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936. That helming of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was followed by many ensuing firsts for William Grant Still. He became the first American composer to have an opera performed by the New York City Opera and the first African-American composer to have an opera performed by a major company, a symphony performed by a major U.S. Orchestra, and an opera performed on national TV!
A part of the Harlem Renaissance which highlighted and celebrated African-American intellectual, social and artistic contributions to American cultural life, William Grant Still is considered “The Dean of Black Classical Music.” His concern with the position of African-Americans in society is reflected in many of his works including the ballet Sahdji, set in Africa and composed after extensive study of African music, and the opera The Troubled Island with a libretto written by iconic African-American writer Langston Hughes. Incorporating the blues, spirituals, and jazz and other ethnic American music into work depicting the African-American experience, Still produced more than 150 compositions, including five symphonies and eight operas. Also said to “present the vision of an integrated American society,” his work has been performed internationally by the best orchestras around the world.
Perhaps, unlike me, you were already aware of this musical history pertinent to Black History Month; in any case, William Grant Still’s impressive achievements certainly deserve notice. I am happy to accommodate.