Thursday, June 11, 2020 Composer Profile: William Grant Still, ‘Dean of Afro-American Composers’

William Grant Still
(Carl Van Vechten)

June 11, 2020

By David Salazar

Born on May 11, 1895, William Grant Still would go on to become one of the most iconic African-American composers of all time.

Still was born in Woodville Mississippi. His father William Grant Still Sr. was a teacher, partner in a grocery store, and performed as a local bandleader; unfortunately, he would pass away when his son was but three months old.

His mother Carrie Lena Fambro was a teacher of high school English and would remarry to Charles B. Shepperson, a champion of the young Still’s musical interests. Still would start taking violin lessons at age 15 and would go on to teach himself to play the clarinet, oboe, saxophone, double bass, cello, and viola.

While he went on to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he would still engage with musical activities and would leave the university without graduating.

He then earned several scholarships to Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he would commence his music career in earnest.

He would perform and record regularly throughout the 1920 and 1930s, arranging several pieces of music.

His first major orchestra composition, his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” came in 1931 and would become the first score by an African American performed by a major orchestra (it was conducted by noted composer Howard Hanson, who led the Rochester Philharmonic in the performance). This was the first of many times that Still would make history.

In 1936, he became the first African American to conduct a major American Orchestra; he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of his own works.

In 1949, his opera “Troubled Island” appeared at the New York City; it was the first opera by an American to be performed by the company. Moreover, “Troubled Island” was the first opera by an African American composer to be performed by a major opera company in the U.S.

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