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Sat, 05.11.1895

William Grant Still, Symphonic Composer born

William Grant Still

On this date in 1895, William Grant Still was born. He was a Black musician and composer.

From Woodville, Mississippi, he was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the grandson of abolitionist William Wilberforce Still. He and his first wife, Grace Bundy, had four children. He took a break from his musical studies at Oberlin College during World War I to join the Navy. At this time, the only job available to African Americans in the Navy was a mess attendant. Yet, despite this discriminatory treatment, he and many other African Americans chose to reinforce their claim on democracy and freedom and fight for liberty overseas. However, they did not have complete freedom at home. During his tour of duty, he was relieved of some of his mess responsibilities to perform for officers' meals after discovering he could play the violin.

The period from 1926 to the early 1940s was Still's most prolific musically. During this time, he wrote "Levee Land" (1925), a suite for orchestra and soprano that combines traditional Western musical elements with jazz; "From the Black Belt" (1926), a work for chamber orchestra based on seven short characters sketches; "Sahdji" (1930), a choral ballet based on an African story, and "Afro-American Symphony."

It was his Afro-American Symphony, which became the first Black-composed symphony performed by an American orchestra. The Eastman Rochester Philharmonic premiered in 1931. Thirty-four other American and European orchestras performed the symphony during the 1930s. His most famous work, "Lenox Avenue" (1936), is a ballet depicting life in Harlem, and his opera "Troubled Island" (1941) is about the Haitian slave rebellion and consequent troubles of their leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines. During the 1950s, Still turned to writing for young audiences.

During this period, he composed, among other works, "The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony" (1954), "The Little Red Schoolhouse" (1957), "The American Scene" (1957), which is a set of five descriptive suites for young Americans based on geographic regions of the country, and various songs and arrangements written for children's music textbooks. William Grant Still died in 1978.

William Grant Still was the first African American to have an opera, "A Bayou Legend," performed on national television (1981).

To Become a Conductor or Composer


William Grant Still

Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century.
Edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier
Copyright 1998, University if Illinois Press
ISBN 0-252-06213-2

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