Monday, February 15, 2021

Opera News: Renaissance Man: The rich operatic legacy of Black composer William Grant Still

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Opera News

February 2021

By Gayle Murchison

Illustration By John Jay Cabuay

In the late 1980s, as I began work on my doctoral dissertation in the Yale Music Library, I was chatting with Anthony Davis, the most successful African-American composer of opera music today.   Davis has written eight operas, including X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, given its premiere at New York City Opera in 1986, and was the recipient of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music for The Central Park Five.  When he learned of my interest in William Grant Still, the "Dean of Afro-American Composers," Davis mentioned that X was only the second work by a Black composer produced at City Opera.  The first was Still's Troubled Island, unveiled in 1949 - more than thirty-five years before X.  Both dealt with Black history.  Malcolm X was a revolutionary figure radically outspoken about racism in  the United States.  Still's Troubled Island, with a libretto by poet Langston Hughes, is also about a revolutionary figure, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led Haiti to liberation from French colonizers.  Still broke barriers when Troubled Island was performed at City Center: he became the first African-American to have an opera performed by any major U.S. opera company.

Today, William Grant Still is best known for his five symphonies, along with several tone poems and other large orchestral works.  Those are the Still works one most often hears on classical music radio - frequently in February, Black History Month.  Still's Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American" was the first symphony by an African-American composer to be performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S.; given its premiere by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, it was played by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1931 in 1935.  Still also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra, leading the Los Angeles in 1936. 

Still also composed eight operas.  Only five have been produced - and only three of those during Still's lifetime.  These works reflect the ideals and aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance fused with elements of nineteenth-century Romantic opera, which he first experienced via phonograph records in the 1910s.

Still was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi, to schoolteachers William Grant Still, Sr., and Carrie Fambro Still.  A few months later, his father died, and Still moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, with his mother, who remarried when he was nine years old.  In speeches and letters, Still recounted how, as a youth, he listened to Victor Red Seal records owned by his stepfather, Charles B. Shepperson.

Upon matriculation at Wilberforce College (now University), where he pursued premedical studies, Still also studied scores independently, discovering Weber's Oberon and Wagner's Fliegende Hollander and attending opera performances in Dayton and Cincinnati.  In 1975, Still told pioneering musicologist Eileen Southern of his initial encounters with Italian opera - Rigoletto, Il Trovatore L'Elisir d'Amore - during his first spring break at home in 1911.  "I should say that my deep love of opera dates from that time.  I knew then that somehow I had to learn to compose operatic music."


No comments: