IN THE WILLIAM GRANT STILL COLLECTION
HELD IN SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, DUKE UNIVERSITY
The letters in the William Grant Still Collection, held in Special Collections at Duke University, are quite informative, and they are able to shed light on various aspects of the composer's life, times and works. The majority of the letters in this collection consists of communications to and from such notables and associates of Still as Alain Locke, Charles Burch, and Carl Van Vechten. Verna Arvey, Still's wife, would often write and receive letters on behalf of her husband from these men. The collection also contains a few miscellaneous letters from people such as R. Nathaniel Dett, Howard Hanson, and other collaborators, but the bulk of the collection is based on the letters from or to Locke, Burch, and Van Vechten.
Alain Locke (1885-1954) is best known for his activities surrounding the Harlem Renaissance, although his work and influence extend well beyond the Renaissance. Locke not only helped to popularize the description of the movement through his book The New Negro, published in 1925, but he was the one person who defined it. His interest and writings cover a wide range of topics which include not only philosophy, but also music, art, literature, anthropology, political theory, sociology, and African Studies. In addition to his chairing and teaching in the Department of Philosophy at Howard University he spent a great deal of time advising and encouraging many African American artists in various fields.
Locke was fired from Howard in 1925 because of his efforts to secure equal pay for both white and black professors.
However, he was reinstated in 1928. It was during his absence from Howard that Locke's productivity increased, and he established many relationships with artist and philanthropist.
It was also during this period that he established his friendship with William Grant Still. Many believed that the Renaissance died sometime between the years 1935 and 1939 due to various reasons. While Locke may have distanced himself from many of his former associates after this time he continued to keep in touch with Still long after the alleged demise of the Black Renaissance.
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His historic novel Nigger Heaven helped to show the African American in a more favorable light. He was also responsible for showing that African Americans were capable of producing art of a high standard, which was a basic tenet of the Renaissance. Van Vechten had a wide circle of friends who depended on him to show them around Harlem, when Harlem was in vogue. This circle of associates included writers, such as F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Norman Mailer. His circle of musicians included George Gershwin, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, and Cab Calloway. Artists included Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp and Aaron Douglas. He also served as an associate music critic for the New York Times in the early 1900s.
He was responsible for the creation of several major collections, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale, and the Anna Marble Pollack Memorial Library of Books about Cats, also at Yale. At Fisk University he placed the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Music Literature and the Florine Stettheimer Memorial Collection of Books about the Fine Arts. His collection of manuscripts and personal correspondence is at the New York Public Library.
Van Vechten was an avid photographer and took extensive photographs of nearly all of his associates. His tireless efforts to photograph Still can be seen in his letters.
There are twenty-eight letters from Still to Locke and twenty-five from Locke to Still. Verna wrote to Locke at least once and Locke responded at least once to Verna. There are sixty-one letters that Carl Van Vechten wrote to the Stills, twenty seven addressed to Still and thirty four to Verna.
However, the majority of the responses from the Stills are not included in this collection. There are only two letters to Carl Van Vechten from the Stills.
This collection does not contain any of the letters from Charles Burch. Therefore, one only has one side of the conversation, as opposed to the many two-sided conversations that one is privileged to find in the Locke letters. There are eighteen letters from the Stills to Burch, fourteen from William, and four from Verna.
While these letters are useful, there are missing letters from others that could also be very helpful for a study of Still's life and music, if they could be located. These would include letters from Still's collaborators of librettos such as Ricahrd Bruce, the librettist for Sahdji; Langston Hughes, the librettist for Still's first successful opera Troubled Island, and Katherine Chapin Biddle, who collaborated with Still on works such as Plain Chant for America and They Hung Him from a Tree.
There are letters from Still to Hughes located in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale (see Appendix 2). It would also be helpful if there were letters from conductors who worked with Still, such as Leopold Stokowski and John Barbirolli. There is one letter from Howard Hanson (M008) that thanks Still for the dedication of Sahdji, which he premiered. However, there must be other letters from Hanson. Around May of 1930 Still wrote to Locke (SL003) and stated that he had received a letter from Hanson, in which Hanson tells him of the orchestra's positive reaction to Sahdji during their first rehearsal. This can not be the letter already in the collection (M008), for that letter was written in August.
By examining the letters that are available, one is able to see how particular compositions by the composer came into being through the encouragement of Alain Locke (who introduced him to Richard Bruce and Mrs. Biddle [Katherine Chapin]), or specific types of problems, such as delays that Still experienced while working on a particular work.
These letters are also valuable in showing how these individuals felt about Still's work as well how the public and critics felt. A careful study and analysis of these letters is also helpful in helping one to understand more fully the personality, feelings, and philosophy of the composer and his time.
The issue concerning the use of folk elements in the music comes through the Still-Locke correspondence. The first letter in this collection from Alain Locke (AS001), of July 1927, to Still recommends collaboration on a choral-ballet with the libretto by Mr. Bruce. Still's response (SL001) is one of enthusiasm and states that he wants to do some research into African musical instruments, and he also wants to have some of his African friends sing traditional songs for him. Still makes it quite clear that he does not intend to use these songs as themes in his work but that he wants to capture their character in his original music. This attitude would fall into line with the ideas of nationalism in American music that were prevalent at this time. The idea was to capture the essence, flavor or character of a particular type of music without actually quoting existing folk songs.
While Still wanted to write in a nationalistic vein he also wanted to be able to write music without being forced to use African American musical elements. In his letter to Locke (SL011) he writes about the fair commission and adds that it is good that he has the opportunity to write something that does not have to be "Negroid." He also wants the same opportunity extended to his colleagues. In his letter (SL021) he expresses the opinion that Burleigh should have some of his abstract songs programmed and not just his arrangements of spirituals.
In Locke's letter (LS003) he tells Still that in his opinion that his music which uses folk idioms is more moving than his music in a more modernistic vein. This falls into line with Locke's philosophy and advice given to artists in other disciplines, especially the plastic arts. In LS019 Locke states that he would have wished for more native and primitive rhythm in the folk scenes and choruses of Troubled Island.
The next five letters from Still (SL002-SL006) to Locke all center around Sahdji. They included a delay in the work, the need for more information concerning the libretto, and the results of the rehearsals for the premier.
In LS005 Locke expresses his feelings about a review by Olin Downes of Still's Symphony in G Minor. Locke remarks that the very traits which Downes considers to the work's weaknesses are, in his opinion, the strong points of the music. Still responds with his feelings and philosophy to Locke in his letter of Dec 31, 1937 (SL010), where he is responding to Locke's letter LS005;
"I want to tell you, too, that your comment on my new
Symphony in G minor was, to me, the most apt that has
yet been made. I thoroughly disapprove of following
tradition--just because it is the thing to do. As a
matter of fact, the critics would have accused me of
slavishly adhering to the methods and treatments
developed by others. Imitation is, in their eyes, the
worst fault that a colored man can possess. Yet we
find them criticizing when he does not possess it!
It also seems strange to me that when I write
short compositions I am roundly censured for not
developing my thematic material to the fullest possible
extent, whereas when I do develop it, they say my
compositions are too long.
Did you notice that Lawrence Gilman has twice
accused me of imitating Delius? When I wrote the first
composition of which he said that, I had not heard a
note of Delius' music in my life. Moreover, recently I
was reading a book about Delius, wherein it was said
that Delius received his first inspiration to compose
from hearing the Negroes sing on his Florida
Through the Still-Locke letters one is able to gain some insight into the Howard University issue concerning the consideration of Still to become the new dean of the School of Music. Still is pleasantly surprised that he is even being considered, yet he does not feel that it would be best for him as a composer. However, he does not immediately dismiss the idea.
One can also follow along with Still's decision-making process concerning this position in his letters to Charles Burch. It is unfortunate that Burch's response is not present in this collection, especially since Still mentions in SB008 how Burch's and Brice's view of the position do not coincide. One is also able to see a difference in opinion between Locke and Still concerning the African American violinst and composer, Clarence Cameroon White, as well as Still's opinion of Warner Lawson, who finally became the dean (SL019, LS010).
The Still-Locke letters also indicate the awareness that both men shared of their time and the problems that faced them as a race. LS006 and Still's response SL012 speak to the issue of lynching. Still voices his excitement in collaborating on such an important issue, and he hopes that his music will aid in the need of growing awareness and brotherhood. In LS011, LS012 and SL022 Still and Locke address the issues of World War II and how it may have an effect on African Americans. In SL023 Still makes significant remarks concerning Locke's efforts toward "uplift" which Still refers to as "race building". The Still-Locke letters reflect the dominant thinking of the Harlem Renaissance that by showing the rest of the world that African Americans were capable of producing works of culture poetry, novels, painting, sculpture, and symphonies, and that this would help to fight and rid the world of racism. This attitude can be seen in Verna's letter to Locke (VL002) where she states, "If the opera production goes through according to present plans it will be the biggest thing for Negro culture that has ever been attempted here or abroad. He is not only going to show the world that Negroes can sing such music, but Negroes can create such music, and such fine poetry." The Still Locke letters clearly show the amount of collaboration and influence that Locke, a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, had on Still.
The idea of "race building" is also expressed in a letter by Carl Van Vechten. In writing about the musical successes of Leontyne Price and George Shirley (CVV030), he states, "The Negro is forging ahead with great strides."
Many of Van Vechten's letters and postcards to the Stills speak of the importance of the James Weldon Johnson Collection that he was putting together at Yale and how important it was that they continue to support it. Van Vechten also established a George Gershwin Collection at Fisk University and in CVV017 Van Vechten spells out his rationale for establishing the collection of a prominent African American at Yale and for the Gershwin collection at Fisk, a historical black college. Van Vechten is very concerned about building bridges and having a personal and direct role to play in bringing the races together, and the reasons that he gives for these two collections being located where they are is so that African Americans would have to go to Yale to study James Weldon Johnson or any other aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that was included in the collection and those who were interested in George Gershwin, particularly white Americans, would have to go to a black university for those materials, thereby bringing the two races into contact with each other.
The correspondence between the Stills and Van Vechten gives an indication of the respect that they held for each other. One can also trace the encouragement that the Stills received from Van Vechten in both their professional and personal lives. Verna was interested in having her book on dance published and had sent it to several publishers who had rejected it. In CVV015 Carl encourages Verna by telling her that the rejection only represents an opinion and that many times opinions are not based on sound judgement. In order to underscore this point he relates an incident about the time he had been invited to the home of Walter White (director of the N.A.A.C.P) to hear a young singer and to give his opinion. The opinion he gave was, "She had a good voice but she sings with so little feeling I should advise her to take up some other line. I do not see how she can ever make a success." He then goes on to state to Verna that his opinion in this case was quite mistaken, for the young singer was Marian Anderson.
Van Vechten also gives his opinion of Still's compositions and their subsequent performances. In CVS016 he writes concerning Troubled Island: he thinks that the Langston Hughes' libretto would have been served better with more favorable direction. This is the only letter in the collection that William replies to personally (SCV001) (the other letter to Van Vechten was written by Verna). Still thanks Carl for his encouragement and gives his reasons and choice for director.
The letters of both Locke and Van Vechten speak of performances of Still's music that they heard either live or through radio performances. The letters also give their reactions to the performance and composition. Through them one is able to get a sense of Still's popularity at the time and the number of performances he must have had both live and on the radio.
Since this collection does not contain the letters from Charles BurchDonly the letters to himDit is difficult to draw decisive conclusions. However, one can ascertain that their correspondence included mention of the performances of Still's music since, William would inform Burch of upcoming radio performances (SB002). They also contain Still's side of the conversation concerning his consideration of the position as dean of the School of Music at Howard University (SB002, SB006).
Several of the miscellaneous letters are of interest because of the secondary information they give concerning Still or others. The one letter from Robert Nathaniel Dett (M011) gives an interesting tidbit that Dett has added words to his movement Juba (part of his suite for piano In The Bottoms). Another miscellaneous letter of interest is M012, because it appears to be typed by someone other than Still's wife, Verna. This raises some interesting questions. At this time, 1938, did Still consider himself too busy or successful enough to hire a secretary? If so, how much typing was done by this person and where are the other letters? The reply is interesting enough also in light of the fact that Still states that his publisher, George Fisher, is about to publish his life and works.
Although there are plenty of gaps in this collection of letters, there is still enough information that one would find very useful. There is also enough interesting information to whet one's appetite, and make one want to investigate further and find more of the letters to fill in the many gaps that exist, e.g. the Still's letters to Carl Van Vechten. It is the presence of the two-way communication that exist in the letters of the Still-Locke dialogue that make them the most useful in this collection. If it is possible to fill the gaps with the letters from and to the many other collaborators and associates of Still, even more useful information will be available to continue to assess the life, times and work of William Grant Still. Appendix 1
Synopsis of Letters in the William Grant Still Collection
Still to Alain Locke
Still to Locke Sep 3, 1927 Re: Still is responding to Locke's request to write a choral ballet (Sahdji). Still says that he is interested, and wants to do some research on African musical instruments and collect some native songs from African friends.
He adds the following "p.s.": "The themes used in the ballet will be original. I am planning to study the native songs so that the music will have that character."
Still to Locke Oct 29 1928 Still states he has fallen behind on the ballet and wants to know if he should proceed.
Still to Locke [ca 1930 Before May 19] Re: Festival that begins May 19 and closes May 22 with a performance of Sahdji. States that he received a letter from Hanson yesterday; he quotes Hanson, "You will be interested to know that after my first rehearsal with the orchestra that the orchestra members put down their instruments and applauded the work. As you know, this is most unusual for a professional group and it only shows how deeply impressed they were with your music. I think myself that it is a stunning piece of work and should make a deep impression."
Still to Locke [ca 1930] Re: Hanson has wired Still to be present for Monday's rehearsal. Still hopes Locke and Mr. Bruce will be present for the performance of Sahdji. He mentions that on the same program there is a one-act opera by a very talented contemporary composer.
Still to Locke [ca. 1930] Re: Thanks Locke for article in Opportunity. Is revising Sahdji by incorporating a Prologue and strengthening many passages and improving the orchestration.
Hopes Sahdji will be performed in England with Paul Robeson.
Still to Locke [ca 1930] Re: "Sahdji was received with great enthusiasm. Here is an article from one of the Rochester papers.
Sorry you were not there to witness the performance. "P.S." You will find in the New York Times May 24 an article by Olin Downes in which you and Mr. Bruce are mentioned."
Still to Locke [ca. July 15 1930] Re: Thank you for an article in Opportunity.
Still to Locke Jan 24 1931 Re: Has not heard from Locke in some time, Sahdji is to be produced at the University of Rochester (Eastman School of Music). Herman Genhart has written Still for information that will help in costumes and scenery, and Still wants Locke to write him right away.
Still to Locke March 22, 1937 Re: Still likes Alain's book, The Negro and His Music and thanks him for his treatment of himself and compares its approach to Maud Cuney-Hare's book. Is not familiar with Sesana's Negro Heaven or even what medium it is.
Still to Locke Dec 31, 1937 Re: Thanks Locke for his comments on the Symphony in G Minor and explains his philosophy for composition, and states that he is working on a opera on a Haitian subject to a Langston Hughes libretto [Troubled Island].
"I want to tell you, too, that your comment on my new Symphony in G minor was, to me, the most apt that has yet been made. I thoroughly disapprove of following tradition--just because it is the thing to do. As a matter of fact, the critics would have accused me of slavishly adhering to the methods and treatments developed by others. Imitation is, in their eyes, the worst fault that a colored man can possess. Yet we find them criticizing when he does not possess it!
It also seems strange to me that when I write short compositions I am roundly censured for not developing my thematic material to the fullest possible extent, whereas when I do develop it, they say my compositions are too long.
Did you notice that Lawrence Gilman has twice accused me of imitating Delius? When I wrote the first composition of which he said that, I had not heard a not of Delius' music in my life.
Moreover, recently I was reading a book about Delius, wherein it was said that Delius received his first inspiration to compose from hearing the Negroes sing on his Florida plantation."
Still to Locke Aug 6 1939 Re: Missed seeing Locke while in NY Locke's ballet sounds interesting but is too busy at the moment.
Finished the orchestration for the fair music, the new opera and another new ballet. Mentions the article that Verna wrote for him, and Miss Nickerson is now here. Thoughts concerning the honor of the fair commission and that he can write something that does not have to be "Negroid".
Still to Locke August 18, 1939 Re: Reply to Locke's letter of Aug 9. He is thrilled with the idea and expresses his concern for the problem of lynching and his hope of a growing awareness and brotherhood in the US.
Still to Locke Aug 22, 1939 Re: Thank you note and to inform him that Mrs Biddle did come by and that he was excited about the project.
Still to Locke July 6, 1940 Re: Response to Locke's July 2 letter; expresses his feelings about Mr. Fischer of Fischer Publishing.
Still to Locke [ca. July 5, 1940] Re: Thank you for sending the program.
Still to Locke Sep 13, 1940 Re: Seeking permission to use the review of "And They Lynched Him on a Tree" from the journal Opportunity in an edition of Fischer Edition News. Applied for another Fellowship and named Locke as a reference.
Still to Locke Sep 22, 1940 Re: Thank you for the reprint of the review and wants to discuss the opening at Howard University for Dean of the School of Music.
Still to Locke Nov 3 1940 Re: Howard University position and Locke's involvement as well as an upcoming Library of Congress program.
Still to Locke Dec 12, 1940 Re: Ballad performance of Mrs.
Biddle with Miss Burge as narrator and chorus. Nothing on the Library of Congress concert. Roland Hayes sang a spiritual arrangement (though Still felt it was the least representative) and Still expresses his feelings about prominent black performers not performing his work. He also thinks that Clarence Cameron White would make a good Dean of Music at Howard. Thinks of him more as a composer than violinist.
Still to Locke Jan 14, 1941 Re: Response to Dec 18 [letter missing?] Thanks for sending program of the Library of Congress series and for suggesting that he write to Dorothy Maynor.
Still to Locke July 13, 1941 Re: Reply to Locke's letter of July 8. Responds to the war and commencement at Howard. Mentions that he is working on a new opera for Mr. Barbirolli. Mentions that he missed the Dean Dixon broadcast concerts but expresses concerns about the lack of representation from black composers and suggests that Chevalier de St. George's music be programmed or abstract songs by Burleigh and not just spiritual arrangements.
Still to Locke [ca. Sep 2, 1941] Re. A new collaboration with Biddle that he had not told Locke about and a work for Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Centennial but will use "Plain Chant" instead to open the concert with. He expresses his delight over the collaborations with Mrs. Biddle and thanks Locke for bringing them together.
Still to Locke Sep. 8 1941 3670 Cimarron St. Los Angeles Re: Information concerning pictures with Mrs. Biddle and Mr.
Barbirolli. He also makes significant remarks concerning race building and Locke's efforts. He tells of a commission that he finished in 8 days (for the 160th anniversary of LA) and its results.
Still to Locke [ca. Oct 30, 1941] Thank you for sending the program of the concert and is looking forward to receiving a recording of the performance.
Still to Locke [ca. Feb 10 1943] Re: To inform Locke of the recording of his Afro-American Symphony by the Vienna Opera directed by Dr. Karl Krueger. It also includes several of Still's piano works played by Gordon Manley.
Still to Locke Nov. 19, 1944 Re: Reply to letter of Nov. 13.
Thanks Locke for comments on "Old California performed by Monteux. Does not care for Louise Burge personally or musically.
He was not satisfied with her performance of the "Lynching" piece and she offended him and Stokowski on a visit, and is aware that Locke and Mrs. Biddle think very highly of her. States that he does not know White but that Stokowski would probably consider her.
Still to Locke N.D. Re: Thanks for the programs. Mrs. Biddle wrote that you like the music.
Still to Locke N.D. Re: Moving and getting material for the ballet.
Still to Carl Van Vechten
Still to Carl Van Vechten April 7, 1949 Re; Reply to Van Vechten's April 1 letter and thanking him for his encouragement.
Still explains his choice for director and his reasons.
Still to Burch
Still To Charles Burch July 8, 1937 Re: Thinks that his accomplishments should be made known to the public.
Still to Charles Burch Oct 3 1937 1604 West 35th Place Los Angeles Cal. Re: Friendly correspondence mentions that Todd Duncan had been there and had mentioned Burch and sang parts of Still's opera. Tells him to spread the word concerning a broadcast over CBS of Lenox Avenue for the second time on "Everybody's Music."
Still to Charles Burch July 8 1938 Re: Received a card from Burch from Scotland just as Nimrod Allen paid Still a visit from Columbus. They were both wondering why Burch has not received the widespread publicity in the US that he deserved. Working on a new opera. New address Box 97 Station d Los Angeles.
Still to C. Burch Sep 5 1938 Box 79 Station D LA Re: Congratulates Burch on his fruitful stay in Scotland and for the recognition in scholarly sources, sorry that public recognition has not been forthcoming. Mentions preparing for a conducting appearance with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
Still to Burch March 26, 1940 Re: Basic communication, lets Burch know that Dr. Bousefield of the Rosenwald Foundation had dinner with them and that Burch and his accomplishments came up in the conversation, but he wished that he had the facts