William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an African American composer who began his career in the 1920s. He grew up in the south, in Arkansas, and received scholarships to study with well known American composers in the 1910s. After serving in the navy in 1918, Still worked for the most famous professional blues band in the country, run by the blues composer W. C. Handy. Still arranged music for this band, and played in the pit orchestra for the first all-black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along. Still also studied with the ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse, with whom he learned highly dissonant and experimental styles of music. He composed a number of works in this style that combined African American musical styles such as jazz and the blues with experimental modern music.
By the late 1920s, Still realized he wanted to compose an African American style of classical music that represented his identity as both an American composer and an African American. The result was the Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930. It was the first symphony by a black composer ever performed by a major American symphony orchestra when it premiered with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931.
Regarding his symphony, Still wrote that:
I seek in the “Afro-American Symphony” to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.
Here, Still indicates that he did not want to simply assimilate black musical styles into the elite world of the symphony, but that he wanted to represent “sons of the soil,” the authentic music of working class blacks in America whose musical heritage had not been assimilated into mainstream American white culture.
To do this, Still wrote a relatively standard Romantic style symphony movement where all the themes are blues melodies, specifically 12-bar blues melodies. Many of them are adapted from W. C. Handy’s famous song “St. Louis Blues,” popularized by Bessie Smith:
Because the piece is a symphony, Still plays with our expectations by giving us a first movement in sonata-allegro form. So we get the expected (orchestra, sonata form, Romantic-era timbres and style) and the unexpected (muted trumpet playing a 12-bar blues melody). Below you can see a rough listening guide for the following video:
0:00 – Introduction
0:30 – Theme I, a 12-bar blues melody based on Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” muted trumpet. Walking bass in cellos, accompaniment response figure in brass and winds.
1:07 – Theme I repeated by clarinet, pizzicato strings accompany, flute provides response melodies
1:49 – Bridge theme by full orchestra, develops elements from theme I
2:25 – Theme II, gentle lyrical melody in the English horn, harp and strings play chords in support
3:23 – New blues-based themes, lots of harp with wind responses
3:54 – Strings with fragmentary melodies, lots of syncopation and faster, more active “jazzy” rhythms
5:00 – Another new blues theme in strings, sentimental, not 12-bar blues
5:46 – Theme I returns in muted brass with “swing” beat in percussion and strings.
No theme II in recapitulation.
Still’s music was part of a larger trend in American classical music known as “symphonic jazz,” where composers would combine elements of jazz with genres and performing forces of the concert hall. The most well known examples of these works are actually by white composers, such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Alden Carpenter, and George Antheil. Black musicians and composers still faced many obstacles in the music industry to even get a chance to hear their music performed. Many performing groups were still segregated, as were some venues (if not by law, then in practice, especially in New York City). Additionally, black composers faced additional obstacles in the classical music world which was so dominated by white composers, producers, music directors, and patrons. For example, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a kind of jazz piano concerto, achieved far more fame and acclaim than Still’s Symphony did, and today it is a much more well known piece than Still’s:
Many white critics and musicians felt that putting jazz in the concert hall was the only way to “elevate” it from its crude, rough style, a sentiment that reflects the many racist attitudes towards black music and art at the time.