Saturday, August 1, 2009

William Grant Still's Symphony No. 4 '...was intended to be descriptive of the American spirit...'

[William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music; Second Edition; Judith Anne Still, Managing Editor; The Master-Player Library (1995)]

The Centennial Edition of William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music was published in 1995, 100 years after the birth of William Grant Still (1895-1978). Judith Anne Still, the composer's daughter, is Managing Editor. This 360-page Edition was published by The Master-Player Library of Flagstaff, Arizona. On June 22, 2009 AfriClassical posted “Fort Smith Symphony Records Premieres of William Grant Still's 4th & 5th Symphonies on Naxos”. We wrote that the two symphonic premieres would be accompanied by the premiere of Poem, for orchestra (1944) (12:30).

Chapter IV of the book is by Prof. Paul Harold Slattery and includes: “A Discussion Of The Fourth Symphony Including Comparisons With The First Symphony”, beginning on Page 128. Under the heading “General Considerations”, the author begins with “The Creation of Autochthonous”. He writes: “Autochthonous was not intended as a programmatic work.” Slattery quotes William Grant Still's correspondence of April 25, 1969: “Both the Afro-American and the Autochthonous were similar in the sense that both were written as pure music—and a program, or descriptive notes, added after the completion of the music.” The composer is also quoted as saying: “The Afro-American, however, was intended to describe the American Negro from the outset, while Autochthonous was intended to be descriptive of the American spirit, as the subtitle implies.”

“The composer has supplied the following detailed information concerning the actual writing of
Autochthonous: 'I began the Autochthonous on July 22, 1947, decided to subtitle it “Autochthonous” on July 31st, and completed the sketch on September 4th. I had been composing (i.e. working on the sketch) steadily, and as soon as the sketch of a movement was completed, I had started to score it, going on to the composition of the next movement meanwhile. On September 8th, the entire Symphony was completed and I took the master sheets to the blueprint company, after which I started to extract the parts and to proofread what I had already done.'”

Program notes were added next. They will be the subject of a later post. William Grant Still is profiled at, where a comprehensive Works List by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma may be found.

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