William Grant Still

Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still

By Dr. Edith Borroff
Professor Emeritus of Music
SUNY Binghamton (Retired)

A creative life must be examined within several contexts: the historical context most completely contains all other, because it can place a creative mind in a particular place at a particular time, examining the expectations of the art that the mind addresses. William Grant Still was very much a person of his own time and his own place. The influences upon him as a young child, for example, provided for the inevitable shaping of a boy whose father, a university professor, had dies before his child was born; and also of a boy whose mother, a successful teacher and landowner, had married again. The stepfather was a good man who took the child as his own and gave him the background of culture that both parents valued: literature, good conversation, and music. Literature and the arts were especially valued by cultured Americans at the turn of the century; the music was that of European Romanticism personified: Wagner was the great musical hero and no American was considered capable of composing music. So did Still's first ambitions as a composer meet with his mother's adamant musical anti-Americanism. The mother was, in particular, intolerant of the new ragtime/jazz musical development in the United States because she saw it as irreligious.

Still had gone to Wilberforce University (Ohio), a pre-med student as his mother wished, but he became more and more involved in musical matters until he could no longer deny that profession. It was as a family renegade that Still entered the musical world. Worse than that (for his mother), he affiliated himself with composer/produced/publisher W.C. Handy, who is remembered as the "Father of the Blues" and an important influence on popular music in the 20th century.

In each of three phases of his career, Still was very much in a time and a place that defined his thinking. First was the training period, a full apprenticeship served in several places. He received instruction wherever he found it and in a wide scope of styles, from Handy to Chadwick and Varese. This background made Still one of few American composers who have achieved recognition without advanced study or a teaching career in an academic setting.

The second phase was in New York, where he led two lives: that of an arranger and performer in popular music, and that of a composer of concert music. This phase culminated in his decision to investigate his African heritage and to being African musical ideals into his concert music; he composed the ballet Sahdji in 1930 and the Afro-American Symphony in 1931. As if by providence, his mother remained a strong influence here, for he sought out the spiritual and deeply aesthetic elements of the African heritage; Sahdji and the Afro-American Symphony are tremendously powerful in part because they focused on distinctly African elements, transcending the mere influence of jazz, which European and American contemporaries were investigating. Still is arguable the first of a line of American composers to demonstrate his transcendent ability to fuse distinctly African and American musical idioms in concert music. Still's Afro-American Symphony was, until 1950, the most popular of any symphony composed by an American, having been performed by thirty-eight different orchestras in the United States and Europe in its first twenty years.

The last phase of Still's career took place in Los Angeles, where he moved after receiving a Fulbright award in 1935. Again he lived two musical lives: making his living this time by writing film scores and, later, music for television; but he always devoted himself to concert music.

Still's body of works is considerable, based in the German Romantic tradition in which his early training so strongly placed him. Orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and piano music comprise the bulk of it. To this repertoire he brought his own personality, his own background, and his own sense of tradition. This root in tradition sharply defined the nationalist and lushly tonal character of Still's writing, and made his works less popular, as the direction of American music shifted toward the avant-garde during the mid-century period. However, black composers of the avant-garde such as T.J. Anderson, Alvin Singleton, and Olly Wilson accept the nationalist premise of Still's work and his insistence upon technical mastery as a beginning point for their own use of African and African-American elements in concert music.

That Still's writing was an amalgam of African and European, of his own heritage and the heritages of both Africa and the United States, made him, above all, an American composer. The supreme quality of the music, along with the success of his career (with more honorary doctorates than any other composer), made Still a composer of the highest importance-- for Black Americans, and perhaps more importantly, for all Americans.

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