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Biography William Grant Still, 1895-1978

William Grant Still, half-length portrait, facing front, with arms folded. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
William Grant Still, half-length portrait, facing front, with arms folded. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Known as the "Dean of African-American Composers," William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his mother was a high school English teacher. He began to study the violin at age 14 and taught himself to play a number of other instruments, excelling at the cello and oboe. In 1911, Still entered Wilberforce University in Ohio where he gained valuable experience conducting the University band and producing his first attempts at composition and orchestration. Although his abilities as a performer and arranger led to many opportunities for him beyond the concert hall, he was inspired by the career of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to become a composer of concert music and opera. He left Wilberforce University in 1915 and began to work as a freelance performer and arranger for many of the top bands in the Ohio region, eventually developing an association with W.C. Handy for whom Still made his first published arrangement. His work in the world of commercial music lasted throughout his career including film scoring (largely uncredited) while living in Los Angeles during the 1930s and work as an arranger for theatre orchestras and early radio, most notably with Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, Willard Robison and Artie Shaw.

Still's education continued off and on throughout the 1920s with a brief stint at Oberlin College, where he studied theory and counterpoint. He studied composition with George Chadwick at New England Conservatory and privately with experimental composer Edgard Varèse, who became Still's most influential teacher. Varèse was also an advocate for Still, programming his compositions on concerts of the International Composers' Guild, an organization which he helped found in 1921.

William Grant Still's career was comprised of many "firsts". He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 "Afro-American" (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece's New York premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1935. He also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. In the world of opera, his Troubled Island was the first by an African-American to be performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera, 1949) and that same opera was the first by an African-American to be nationally televised.

Although William Grant Still did not write a large quantity of works for solo voice and piano, the quality is very high. Still set many of the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. He also set poetry by his second wife, Verna Arvey, an accomplished writer and pianist who wrote the libretti for most of Still's operas. Perhaps his most ambitious work for voice and piano is the song cycle "Songs of Separation" which sets poetry by Dunbar, Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Haitian poet Philipps Thoby-Marcelin (in French). In the cycle, Still sets five poems of diverse authorship with a common literary theme and constructs a unified musical framework around the poems. As in his famous Symphony no. 1, Still utilizes the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz and blues to portray the sense of "otherness" inherent in the poetry.

Further Reading

  • Arvey, Verna. In One Lifetime. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1984.
  • Spencer, J.M.. The William Grant Still Reader. A special issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, 6 no. 2. (Fall 1992).
  • Still, Judith Anne, Michael J. Dabrishus and Carolyn L. Quin. William Grant Still: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996.