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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 16: William Grant Still

How many times have you heard William Grant Still’s First, “Afro-American” Symphony? Probably never, if I had to guess. That’s not so hard to believe today, but it would’ve been nearly impossible in the mid twentieth century. For roughly 20 years, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Still’s jazz- and blues-inspired work was quite possibly THE most performed symphony by an American composer.


William Grant Still, to put it simply, was a black composer who broke too many barriers to count. A part of the Harlem Renaissance, Still composed nine operas and five symphonies, amongst many other works. He was the first black man to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own music, the first to have an opera performed on national television, and the first American composer (period) to be performed at the New York City Opera. He was kind of a big deal.


In his journal, Still wrote, “I seek in the 'Afro-American Symphony' to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.” The work is a seamless integration of spirituals, jazz, and blues into the traditional symphonic structure.


Each of the symphony’s four movements is accompanied by excerpts from dialect poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Below are those excerpts, as well as an excellent performance of the Afro-American Symphony by the Detroit Symphony and Neeme Jarvi. Enjoy! :)


In the first movement…


“All de night long twell de moon goes down,

Lovin' I set at huh feet,

Den fu' de long jou'ney back f'om de town,

Ha'd, but de dreams mek it sweet.”

(Then, later in that same movement…)


“All my life long twell de night has pas'

Let de wo'k come ez it will,

So dat I fin' you, my honey, at last,

Somewhaih des ovah de hill.”


Second movement…

“It's moughty tiahsome layin' 'roun'

Dis sorer-laden erfly groun',

An' oftentimes I thinks, thinks I,

'T would be a sweet t'ing des to die,

An go 'long home.”


Third movement…

“An' we'll shout ouag halleluyahs,

On dat mighty reck'nin' day.”


Fourth movement…

“Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory's scroll

In characters of fire.

High 'mid the clouds of Fame's bright sky,

Thy banner's blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.”

- Detroit Symphony/Neeme Jarvi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hzFcm6HCeI


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