This Memorial Day weekend, I’m thinking about my Black ancestors who fought and died for this nation in every war. I think about those who served and lived to tell the tale. They came home to die a slower death, under racism and discrimination, which is also a killer. I honor them all.
When thinking about music to both celebrate their lives and memorialize their joining the ancestors, my thoughts turned immediately to the work of William Grant Still, who was known as “The Dean of African American Composers.”
RELATED STORY: They fought and died for freedom: Black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 150 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
The website maintained by Still’s descendants, William Still Music, has these biographical notes about his early years:
On May 11, 1895, he was born in Woodville (Wilkinson County) Mississippi, to parents who were teachers and musicians. They were of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch bloods. When William was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught English in the high school. There his musical education began--with violin lessons from a private teacher, and with later inspiration from the Red Seal operatic recordings bought for him by his stepfather.
In Wilberforce University, he took courses leading to a B.S. degree, but spent most of his time conducting the band, learning to play the various instruments involved and making his initial attempts to compose and to orchestrate. His subsequent studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at first by a legacy from his father, and later by a scholarship established just for him by the faculty.
At the end of his college years, he entered the world of commercial (popular) music, playing in orchestras and orchestrating, working in particular with the violin, cello and oboe. His employers included W. C. Handy, Don Voorhees, Sophie Tucker, Paul Whiteman, Willard Robison and Artie Shaw, and for several years he arranged and conducted the Deep River Hour over CBS and WOR. While in Boston playing oboe in the Shuffle Along orchestra, Still applied to study at the New England Conservatory with George Chadwick, and was again rewarded with a scholarship due to Mr. Chadwicks own vision and generosity. He also studied, again on an individual scholarship, with the noted ultra-modern composer, Edgard Varese.
Some photos of Still:
The Library of Congress writes:
William Grant Still's career was comprised of many "firsts". He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 "Afro-American" (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece's New York premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1935. He also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. In the world of opera, his Troubled Island was the first by an African-American to be performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera, 1949) and that same opera was the first by an African-American to be nationally televised.
Although William Grant Still did not write a large quantity of works for solo voice and piano, the quality is very high. Still set many of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He also set poetry by his second wife, Verna Arvey, an accomplished writer and pianist who wrote the libretti for most of Still's operas. Perhaps his most ambitious work for voice and piano is the song cycle "Songs of Separation" which sets poetry by Dunbar, Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Haitian poet Philipps Thoby-Marcelin (in French). In the cycle, Still sets five poems of diverse authorship with a common literary theme and constructs a unified musical framework around the poems. As in his famous Symphony no. 1, Still utilizes the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz and blues to portray the sense of "otherness" inherent in the poetry.
For Memorial Day, Still’s 1943 composition, “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy,” which was first performed in 1944, is a fitting introduction to his work.
Classical music reviewer, musician, and musicologist David Ciucevich at The Naxos Blog wrote:
The brief orchestral work In Memoriam was the most successful of a group of works on patriotic themes commissioned by the League of Composers during the Second World War. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic on 5th January, 1944, with Artur Rodzinski conducting. The New York Times critic Olin Downes remarked on its powerful ‘simplicity and feeling, without affectation or attitudinizing’. The wording of the title does carry an ironic aspect, reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fighting for world freedom and civilization abroad while being denied those very freedoms at home.
This “ironic aspect” brings up memories of my dad, a Tuskegee Airman who almost lost his life here at home, without seeing action in the air. I wrote about this traumatic event in my Father’s Day tribute to him:
The Tuskegee Airmen would go on to military glory and become a part of history. Not so for my dad.
My father’s joy in serving his country at a time of war and doing it with pilot’s wings was short-lived. His skin color again made a difference. During a break in training he went home to Chicago and returned to Alabama on a bus with a childhood buddy, another airman, also black, but there was one difference. Daddy looked too white. The two buddies, leaving the bus, were spied by a group of 10 or 12 rednecks, who seeing them together, arm in arm – both in their uniforms, spat out epithets of "nigger lover" and proceeded to try to kill my dad and his friend. Two against many was impossible odds, and my father – who took the brunt of the attack, was hospitalized. A rumor got back to the base that my father had been killed. The Airmen were ready for battle; they broke out equipment from the armory and were headed into town to extract revenge. My father was quickly removed from the hospital on a stretcher to prove that he hadn’t been killed to quell the revolt. For this incident, my father was court-martialed for "inciting a riot". Years later, his record was cleared.
RELATED STORY: A salute to the 'colored soldier' whose name I bear, and to all Black veterans
Perhaps we should think of all those Black men, women, and children lynched, murdered, and massacred as soldiers in a war they didn’t sign up for.
Still dealt with the subject of lynching in his choral composition “And They Lynched Him On A Tree”:
Harry T. Burleigh Society You Tube Channel notes about the work:
A work of great immediacy, Still wrote the work for two choruses; an all white lynch mob, and a black chorus of mourners of the murdered man.
The story begins directly following the lynching. The lynch mob revels in their deed before retiring to their homes. Soon after the murdered man’s mother and a chorus of mourners emerge to grieve. At the end of the work the two choruses come together, but not in any measure of solidarity or resolution, but more so as a combined Greek chorus proffering a warning. This work is also an early example of Still’s remarkable ability to synthesize his avantgard training with Edgard Varèse, with more conservative models of composition and his own lived experience as a black man in America. Still, although he publicly downplayed the role of race as an impediment to his career, was a keen observer of America. He completed the work while an anti-lynching bill was able to pass the House of Representatives, but unable to advance in the Senate. Still said: “It is my sincere hope that this [piece] will accomplish some good, and that it will come to the attention of those who have perhaps not thought much about the subject. Then I also pray that it will outlast the purpose for which it was written.”
Alain Locke, dean of the Harlem Renaissance (and editor of the seminal text The New Negro), was a fundamental figure in William Grant Still’s life (1885-1978) and specifically in the creation of “And They Lynched Him on a Tree.” It was Locke who initially sent the poem by Katharine Garrison Chapin to Still and even reviewed the work’s premiere: “[It] universalizes its particular theme and expands a Negro tragedy into a purging and inspiring plea for justice and a fuller democracy.” This idea of a “fuller democracy” was further explored by Still in his 1944 work “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy," the subtext of which pointed to the cruel irony of soldiers of color fighting for freedom abroad that they did not experience at home.
Jen Hitt and Ella Harpstead wrote this feature for CPR Classical in 2022:
William Grant Still thought he would be forgotten.
That’s what his granddaughter, musician and journalist Celeste Headlee, told us when she spoke about her beloved grandfather- a composer whose lush, emotional music lends itself to the distinctly American sound of the early 20th century. Still’s compositions paint a landscape of the world around him, and of the musical heritage of fellow African Americans.
Take his first symphony, “Afro-American”, for example. Not only is it Still’s most famous work, it was performed by 38 orchestras in the U.S. and Europe in its first 20 years, making it the most popular American symphony until 1950. When he began sketching the piece in 1924, Still had recently finished playing in the pit for the Broadway musical, “Shuffle Along”, which was produced and performed entirely by African Americans. According to writer and activist Langston Hughes, that show ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. Headlee told CPR Classical that Still mused on the symphony and its inspirations for years, but it took until the Depression for Still to buckle down, shut himself in a New York City apartment, and write the whole thing in a few months. The Rochester Philharmonic premiered the symphony a year later in 1931. “Afro-American” was the first symphony by a Black composer to be performed by a leading orchestra.
The symphony incorporates original blues themes and jazz rhythms, a rarity at the time and even today. Still deftly includes a banjo in the piece and also incorporates a familiar theme. Back in his “Shuffle Along” days, Still improvised a four-note riff and then played it every night. One person who loved attending the popular musical was George Gershwin. Gershwin set the words “I Got Rhythm” to Still’s four-notes in the song of the same name. It’s disputed whether Gershwin consciously or unconsciously lifted that riff but you can hear Still take it back in the third movement of his first symphony, “Afro-American.” While the similarity is audible, Headlee says, “Honestly, I never heard my grandfather rant about it.”
Still’s most famous work was his “Afro-American Symphony.”
Ciucevich wrote extensive notes on Still’s “Afro-American” for Naxos Records American Classics:
Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the ‘Afro-American’ Symphony that established Still’s reputation worldwide. It was first given in 1931 by that
indefatigable champion of his fellow composers,Howard Hanson, with the Rochester (NY) Symphony. It rapidly established itself in the repertoire, including
the New York Philharmonic performance at Carnegie Hall and performances by 34 other American orchestras in the 1930s alone. Still succinctly described his goals in
writing the work: ‘I knew I wanted to write a symphony;I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a
lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.’ After the work’s completion, Still appended verse by Paul Lawrence Dunbar to illuminate
the mood of each movement. A deeply religious man, he inscribed the work (as he did each of his works) to God, ‘the source of all inspiration’.
The first movement, Longing, begins with the principal melody, an original twelve-bar blues melody stated by the English horn. The instrumental colour
cannot fail to bring to mind the nostalgic solo for the same instrument in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Still submits this melody to thematic transformation throughout the work in the Lisztian tradition with great craftsmanship. Throughout this movement, the essential three-chord harmonic structure of the blues acts as a
powerful underpinning to moods of brooding and exultation. The second theme in the oboe represents another major genre of African-American music, the
spiritual. A vigorous development of these materials leads to their recapitulation in reverse order. The final appearance of the blues theme, fully orchestrated, leads
to an affirmative ending in the major. The slow movement, Sorrow, depicts the strength of an oppressed people, bloodied but not broken. Solo oboe over flute
and string accompaniment presents the main theme. The blues theme of the first movement reappears later in the flute, vacillating between major and minor. Slowly
rolled harp arpeggios accompany a transformation of the oboe theme. Both themes return in reverse order to close the movement.
The third movement fulfills the traditional scherzo function. Entitled Humor, it is the most popular of the four movements and is often performed independently. The third major genre of African-American music, dance music, which encompasses ragtime and jazz, is celebrated with distinctive syncopated cross-rhythms and ‘backbeat’ figures. The use of the banjo (the first use of the instrument in a symphony) adds local colour to the festive atmosphere. A tune vaguely reminiscent of Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm appears here. Still’s melody predates Gershwin’s, the tune being improvised by Still in the 1920s while performing in the Broadway
show Shuffle Along. As contemporaries who moved in the same circles and admired each other’s work, Still and Gershwin consciously and unconsciously influenced
each other. The finale, Aspiration, provides a noble peroration as it unites the themes and style of the previous movements, demonstrating that a distinctive
American voice in music is intrinsically tied to the musics and contributions of African-Americans.
Michael Andor Brodeur, The Washington Post’s classical music critic, writes about the National Symphony Orchestra’s recent performance of Still’s Symphony No. 2 in G Minor “Song of A New Race” alongside Beethoven:
A pulse of vibraphone and a wash of light, silky strings opened the first movement, which found lively dialogues breaking out between violins and cellos. Clarinets and flutes climbed like vines up rungs of strummed harp. Noseda brought fabulous dimension to the strings, which heaved like gusts of wind over a passage of staccato flutes. A darting piccolo fluttered over quizzical oboes and clarinets. A theme rising in the brass brought the whole orchestra to a bracing climax.
In this and every movement thereafter, Still’s vibe swings freely between elegant cosmopolitanism and intimate colloquialism. From the wryly wonky horns, lilting flutes and rag-adjacent flashes of splash cymbal in the third movement, to the heartbreaker horns and luminescent strings of the finale, Still’s second is a stunningly beautiful work — a symphony that, in a better world, we’d be sick of hearing by now.
There is no video of their performance yet; however, here it is performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as conducted by Neeme Järvi.
Though I’m ending today’s story here, join me in the comments section below to post the music you’ll be playing this Memorial Day weekend.