Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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

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

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. Dominique-René 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. Earlier this year, Judith Anne Still participated in “The Naxos Sessions” of the Fort Smith Symphony, conducted by John Jeter. The Sessions were, in effect, public rehearsals for recordings of Still's Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race), No. 3 (Sunday Symphony) and Wood Notes. A CD of the three works is due out by the end of 2011, completing the world's first series of recordings of all 5 Symphonies of William Grant Still.

Comment by email:
Thank you, Bill, for this tribute to my father. Very fine, and appreciated. (Judith Anne Still)

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