Sunday, August 5, 2007

"Skyward my people rose: Music of William Grant Still" by Dominique-René de Lerma


Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma is an oboist and musicologist who has been a Professor of Music and a prolific author for more than half a century. For the past four decades he has specialized in Black classical music. The review of the series of four CDs appears in the August 2007 eNewsletter of the Myrtle Hart Society and is used by permission of its Founder/Director, Rashida Black, an African American harpist. The eNewsletter is free and may be requested by E-mail to

Witness, the soul of American music

By Dominique-René de Lerma; Part 2 of 4

Skyward my people rose; Music of William Grant Still
VocalEssence Ensemble; Philip Brunelle, conductor; liner notes by Dominique-René de Lerma; texts; series note; performer bios.

Swanee river. (2:56).
And they lynched him on a tree. Hilda Harris, mezzo-soprano; William Warfield, narrator; Leigh Morris Chorale (17:34).
Miss Sally's party. String orchestra . (9:11).
Reverie. Philip Brunelle, organ. (3:56)
Elegy. Philip Brunelle, organ. (5:25).

There certainly has never been any question about William Grant Still's standing in Black music history, and hardly any justification for not signaling him as a major person to define American music. Further, one immediately can claim his Afro-American symphony of 1930 as being the culmination of the aspirations of the Harlem Renaissance "elevating" the folkloric to the idealization of the concert world (this, despite the rise of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith by that time). Still grew up in the legacy of the blues and jazz, never disdaining either, but reaching for the world of the symphony and opera. His passion for the latter genre was frustrated in what should have been a major breakthrough.

Troubled island received its première and only production during his life by the New York City Opera. Its fate was determined after only three performances in 1949 by a cabal of racist critics, defying the audience enthusiasm and twenty-two curtain calls (The story is told in the richly documented Just tell the story; Troubled island by Judith Anne Still and Lisa M. Headlee – Flagstaff: The Master-Player Library, 2006).

The works heard on this CD, several for the very first time) come both before and after that unfortunate event. First is his choral setting of Stephen Foster's Swanee river.

The poignant cantata, And they lynched him on a tree, was written in 1940 to a text by Catherine Garrison Chapin. For this performance, Brunelle has called on the stellar forces of Hilda Harris, the late William Warfield, with the African American chorus, Robert L. Morris' Leigh Morris Chorale providing a sympathetic counterpart to the singers of VocalEssence.

Miss Sally's party is a ballet, the scenario provided by the composer's multi-gifted wife and frequent collaborator, Verna Arvey. It centers around mischievous boys who misbehave, failing to win the concluding cakewalk.

The last two works are performed by the conductor, now as organist. The pair come from 1961 and 1963, and could well serve as meditative occasional pieces.

One feature that is included on all of these recordings is the specification of publishers (many of the Still works are available from William Grant Still Music in Flagstaff, operated by the composer's daughter, who has a virtual archive of no end of materials related to all aspects of her father's life and works – jazz arrangements and recordings from the 1920s as well as film scores from the early days of sound movies, when Still's distinctive orchestral sonorities established the Klangideal even for Russian films of the time).

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