Saturday, March 10, 2018

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Rex Nelson Writes of William Grant Still's "musical world"

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

REX NELSON: Still’s musical world

"Composers are creative; makers," said Linda Holzer, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the coordinator of classical piano studies at the school. "They make music. They use melody, harmony and rhythm to create a world. It's a musical world, and it's shaped by what they know.
"I'm a classical pianist, and the music I play includes piano solo and chamber music. In September 1997, as part of events in honor of the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, I performed a chamber music recital with Arkansas native, cellist and musicologist Ernest Lamb. ... We played a piece by William Grant Still. It's called 'Summerland.' The music sounds like Arkansas. Last summer, I rode my bike along the Arkansas River. On a day in June, I looked around me and saw the beautiful, expansive flowing water of the river. I saw the lush vegetation of the landscape. I looked up at the blue sky and saw the white, fluffy clouds of summer days. And I thought, 'William Grant Still surely makes music that reminds me of Arkansas.'"
On Wednesday, I wrote about Florence Price, a black composer who was born in Little Rock in April 1887. I quoted from a New Yorker article about Price and noted that there seems to be a resurgence in interest in the work of this native Arkansan, who died in Chicago in 1953. She's not the only famous black composer to have been raised in Little Rock. Still wasn't born in Arkansas' capital city. He was born in May 1895 in Woodville, Miss., but Still's mother moved to Little Rock with her infant son after her husband died later that year.
"Still and his mother lived with his grandmother, and his mother worked as a teacher," Michael Dabrishus writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "In 1904, Still's mother married a railway postal clerk, Charles Benjamin Shepperson, whose own interest in music influenced the young Still. With Shepperson's support, he studied violin in 1908 with violinist William Price, who lived for a short time in Little Rock. Still attended M.W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock and graduated in 1911 as class valedictorian. That fall, he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where his mother hoped he would pursue studies in medicine. His interest in music, however, led him to leave Wilberforce in early 1915 without graduating in order to play in bands and orchestras in Ohio."
During the noon hour on a recent Friday, I joined several dozen other people at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock. We were there to hear Holzer play selections of Still's music and talk about his life.
Still's mother taught high school English for 33 years. Shepperson nurtured his stepson's musical interest by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal recordings of classical music. His maternal grandmother, Anne Fambro, would sing spirituals to him.

No comments: