Monday, May 10, 2010

William Grant Still, Composer With Wealth of Repertoire & Recordings, Born May 11, 1895

[ABOVE: William Grant Still (Photo is the sole property of William Grant Still Music, and is used with permission.) BELOW: All In; Helix Collective; Miniatures For Flute, Oboe and Piano; Blue Griffin Records BGR 133 (2009).]

A complete biography can be found on the William Grant Still (1895-1978) page at Dominique-René de Lerma is Professor of Music at Lawrence University Conservatory in Appleton, Wisconsin. He has specialized in African heritage in classical music for four decades, and has kindly made his research on William Grant Still available to this site. It includes a complete Works List of the compositions of William Grant Still, with scholarly details about compositions, sheet music and recordings.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872-1927) and William Grant Still (1871-1895). Young William was only three months old when his father died. Carrie Still then took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they lived with her mother. She later married Charles Shepperson, who shared his love of opera and musical performances with William.

William started violin lessons at age 14. Prof. De Lerma notes that the youth also taught himself how to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and showed a great interest in music. His maternal grandmother introduced him to African American spirituals by singing them to him. At age 16 he graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University in Ohio from 1911 to 1915. He then dropped out of the school, which lacked a Music program. On October 4, 1915 he married Grace Bundy, an acquaintance from Wilberforce. Still entered Oberlin Conservatory in 1917, but his studies were interrupted by an enlistment in the U.S. Navy in 1918-1919. He returned to Oberlin briefly before moving to New York City to work for W.C. Handy as performer, arranger and road manager.

Michael Fleming writes in the liner notes for Still's Afro-American Symphony on the Chandos label: “He earned his living playing the oboe in the pit band for the musical Shuffle Along.” The tour schedule of the show enabled Still to take lessons from Edgar Varese in New York City and George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music. Aaron Myers writes in Africana Encyclopedia: “He created over 150 musical works including a series of five symphonies, four ballets, and nine operas.”

Prof. De Lerma adds “Still became a classical composer while working in the record business.” His Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic under Howard Hanson in 1931. His Symphony No. 2 in G Minor (Song of a New Race) was premiered in 1937 by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Prof. De Lerma continues: “He moved to Los Angeles in 1934, having won the first of two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships (third in 1938), followed by two years on a Rosenwald Fellowship (1939-1940), soon after sound was introduced to the cinema, and was engaged in writing music for such early films as Lost Horizon (1935), Pennies From Heaven (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943).

"Later he served as composer for television, writing music for Gunsmoke and the original Perry Mason Show (1954). All the while, however, he gave serious attention to his symphonic, chamber, and operatic interests." William Grant Still died in Los Angeles in 1978. Judith Anne Still, his daughter, operates William Grant Still Music at It offers a wide range of sheet music, recordings, books and other items.

Perhaps the most important recording to be released since the composer's last birthday was the subject of our October 14, 2009 post, “William Grant Still's 4th and 5th Symphonies, and 'Poem' for Orchestra, on Naxos 8.559603.” The composer is best known for his Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American), followed by his Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race). It is notable that in contrast, Symphony No. 4 (Autochthonous) represents "the spirit of the American people," in the composer's words, and Symphony No. 5 (Western Hemisphere) concerns all the peoples of the Americas.

A Nov. 21, 2009 post was “Greg Kostraba on 'The Toledo Clarinets,' With Music of William Grant Still.” The disc is Cambria CD-1190 (2009), and the works by William Grant Still are Lyric Quartette and Christmas In The Western World. On Feb. 15, 2010 AfriClassical posted “William Grant Still's 'Gamin' on Siow Lee-Chin's Well-Reviewed CD 'Songs My Father Taught Me.'” In March 2010, All In by the trio known as Helix Collective released its version of the Miniatures For Flute, Oboe and Piano on Blue Griffin Records BGR 133 (2009).

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