William Grant Still

10 October 2016

Still was self-taught in saxophone, clarinet, and cello along with an assortment of other instruments while also taking violin lessons. A man with humble beginnings, William Grant Still became the first person of African descent to conduct a major American Symphony (“William Still”). Still is most famous for his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”. He was the first African-American man to write a symphony and then have it performed by the leading Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Still also wrote Operas, but they never gained the notoriety of his aforementioned symphony. He composed such operas as Troubled Island and A Bayou Legend. Still made a name for himself during a time when African Americans were oppressed. William Grant Still was married to Verna Arvey, who played a big part in his music. They were married in Mexico due to the fact that interracial marriage was illegal in the United States. Still defied all social stigmas and became a man who broke down barriers in music and fought equality (J. Smith).

The list of his groundbreaking achievements ranges from being the first African-American to conduct a symphony in the Deep South to being the first to have a symphony televised over a national network. Still was a pioneer in the Modern era of music in the early 20th century by creating music that interests all of the greats, but had a definite American influence to it. When William Grant Still died on December 3, 1978, a great deal of his work was forgotten. Today, his music has been rediscovered and he is cited as “the Dean” of African-American composers (“William Grant Still”).

He wrote the music for the controversial opera, Troubled Island, while his wife, Verna Arvey, along with Langston Hughes wrote the libretto. The Troubled Island, tells the story of Jean Jacques Dessalines and his corrupt leadership in the Haitian revolution. After declaring himself emperor of Haiti, he is eventually assassinated by opponents of his regime. The Opera was well received and garnered 20 curtain calls after its first performance. Critics panned opera and which caused it to close after only three performances.

The opera’s score mixed modern American influences with native Haitian influences to create a masterpiece (Murchison 42-74). Still’s most well-known Opera was A Bayou Legend. This opera would eventually become a television movie that would eventually rekindle interest in Still’s catalog of music. The story involves the beautiful and rancorous Clothilde as she enacts a plan of revenge against Bazile, a man who does not return her affection. Clothilde tries her hardest to gain his affection, but in the end, her feelings unrequited by Bazile, she orchestrates a scheme which leads to Bazile being lynched.

The Opera was awarded the distinction of being his most well-known work, and being held as a lyrical masterpiece. The libretto was written by his wife, and longtime collaborator and wife, Verna Arvey (Smith 23-56). In my opinion, William Grant Still is by far one of the most influential composers in American Music. His music, held true to a lot of the beliefs that he was taught and showcased the African-American struggle, while also appealing to a wider public. Still was a true artist, who also worked with W. C. Handy as his arranger.

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