Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 of Charles Ives Published Before William Grant Still Composed Classical Music

[William Grant Still (Photo is the sole property of William Grant Still Music, and is used with permission.]

Yesterday, October 18, 2010, we posted a link to an interview Stuart Isacoff had with pianist Jeremy Denk for The Wall Street Journal. The article quotes Jeremy Denk: “Think of William Grant Still or Amy Beach. They were mostly writing 'in the style of. . . .' That is, they were busy redecorating the same rooms.” Jeremy Denk is performing Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 of Charles Ives.

We made this comment yesterday: “The pianist Jeremy Denk is currently performing music of the American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). In an interview with Stuart Isacoff for The Wall Street Journal, Denk compares the originality of Charles Ives as a composer to that of Beethoven, and finds such originality mostly lacking in the works of William Grant Still and Amy Beach. We believe William Grant Still exhibited daring originality when he incorporated influences of jazz and the Blues in his classical works, including his Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American), which was consciously conceived as a quintessentially American composition and one which would elevate popular forms of music which had often been regarded as inferior.”

It is very instructive to compare the dates of composition of the Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 of Charles Ives with the activities of William Grant Still. We turned to one of the most authoritative classical music websites, MusicWeb-International.com, for the composition history of each of the works:

“Composition History
Ives assembled and revised the Piano Sonata No. 1 "as late as 1919" (according to Sinclair) from works composed circa 1901 to 1909.”

“Composition History
Ives assembled / recomposed the Piano Sonata No. 2 circa 1915, based on music that he had composed from 1904 to 1915. He made additional revisions in 1919 prior to publishing the work, and continued to revise it throughout his life.”

What was William Grant Still (1895-1978) composing from 1901-1919? The composer's page at AfriClassical.com provides the answers. Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma has studied Black Classical Music for four decades, and has provided his research on William Grant Still to AfriClassical.com. He explains Still's studies at Wilberforce University from 1911-1915:

“He was unhappy at Wilberforce where he directed the band from 1911 to 1915 and made arrangements because there was no music in the curriculum. First recital of his music in 1913. He moved to Oberlin in 1917, following two years of work in Columbus where in 1914 he began playing the oboe and cello professionally at the Athletic Club. Also played oboe and violin in the tours of the National Guard Band, 1915-1916.”

“He studied at Oberlin with Maurice P. Kessler (violin), George Whitfield Andrews (composition), Friedrich J. Lehman (counterpoint and theory), and Charlotte Andrews Stevens, and played in the student string quartet. Made band arrangements. The lure of music was too strong. Further study, made possible by an inheritance from his father, was undertaken in 1917 and 1919 at Oberlin (where he first heard an orchestra). His stay at Oberlin was interrupted when he enlisted service in the Navy (1918-1919).

“Black sailors were restricted to aspects of food service but, when it became known that Still was a trained musician, he was engaged to play the violin for the meals of officers on the U.S.S. Kroonland.” “Released from the Navy with the end of the war, he returned briefly to Oberlin and then in 1919 moved to New York, resuming his work with W.C. Handy as performer, arranger, and road manager and in Pace and Handy Music Company Band (he originally began working for Handy, who was then in Memphis, for the summer of 1916 as arranger and cellist). Then freelanced in Columbus for the fall of 1916.”

Still became a classical composer while working in the record business. Black Swan Records was a label owned by African Americans. Prof. De Lerma tells us that Still was the director of Black Swan's classical division from 1921-1922, and was the label's music director from 1922-1924. The first performance of a classical work by Still took place on February 8, 1925. The ensemble was the International Composer's Guild and the work was From the Land of Dreams. Still's Darker America was performed in both 1926 and 1927.

Thus the Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 of Charles Ives were published before William Grant Still began to compose classical music.

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