William Grant Still (1895-1978) has been called the dean of African American composers. Throughout his distinguished career he composed in many styles, frequently utilizing black motifs.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. In his early years he took violin lessons and was exposed to a wide variety of music, ranging from spirituals and hymns to opera. He majored in science at Wilberforce University but soon found himself composing, arranging, and conducting the school band. He decided to become a composer and studied at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory.
After serving in the Navy during World War I, Still went to New York City to work in W. C. Handy's music publishing company. He participated actively in the musical world, playing jazz and directing the Black Swan Phonograph Company. In addition, he studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, who proved to be an important mentor.
During the 1920s Still began to compose serious concert works. Among these were Darker America (1924) and From the Land of Dreams (1925), the latter work showing the influence of Varèse. When Howard Hanson led the Rochester Philharmonic in a performance of Still's Afro-American Symphony in 1931, it marked the first time a symphonic work by a black composer was performed by a leading symphony orchestra. The work later received hundreds of performances in the United States and abroad. As the composer noted, "I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level." The Afro-American Symphony was the second part of a symphonic trilogy, consisting also of Africa (1930) and the Symphony in G Minor, subtitled Song of a New Race (1937).
During the 1930s Still worked as a free-lance arranger and a staff composer for network radio. He orchestrated musical comedies and wrote for outstanding personalities such as Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman. In 1934 a Guggenheim fellowship enabled Still to devote himself entirely to composition. His first opera, Blue Steel, was based on the story of a black worker and incorporated African-American folk music. Another "first" in Still's career occurred in 1949, when the New York City Opera Company presented his second opera, Troubled Island; this was the first time that a leading opera company produced a work by an African-American composer.
Still composed background music for motion pictures and television, including the film Pennies from Heaven and the television show Gunsmoke. This versatile composer also wrote ballets, chamber music, many solo songs and spirituals, and choral works. His later works, such as The Prince and the Mermaid (1966), continued to indicate his originality within conventional modes of expression.
Still's career was replete with musical scholarships and honorary degrees in music. In 1971, he received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Arkansas. In 1976, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Still with a scroll for his "extraordinary contributions to the literature of symphonic music, opera, ballet, chamber music, songs and solo works."
Still was producing or revising earlier works even while in his late seventies. He was saluted on his 75th birthday with an all-Still concert by the Oberlin (Ohio) Orchestra, which presented the world premiere of his Symphony No. 5, Western Hemisphere. This four-movement piece was originally composed in 1937, and revised in 1970. In 1974, Opera/South in Jackson, Mississippi, presented the world premiere of Still's A Bayou Legend, originally composed in 1941. The libretto was written by Still's wife, Verna Arvey. This opera was later performed in Los Angeles in 1976 as part of the U.S. Bicentennial celebration and Black History Week, and was telecast on Public Broadcast Service (PBS) in 1981.
Columbia Records released a new recording of Still's Afro-American Symphony in 1974. The next year, Still was honored on his 80th birthday at the University of Southern California with a program of his works. In 1977, Opera Ebony revived Still's two-act opera Highway 1 USA in New York.
Still died on December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles. The William Grant Still Community Arts Center was dedicated in Los Angeles shortly before his death, and a memorial concert featuring his key compositions was presented at the University of Southern California in May 1979. Still's accomplishments clearly placed him among the foremost composers of his day.
The only book written on Still was by his wife, Verna Arvey, in William Grant Still (1939). It was a valuable, short source work but stopped at 1939. A good survey of Still's career through 1971 was found in Eileen Southern's, Music of Black Americans (1971).