William Grant Still

American Born 11 May 1895 Died 03 Dec 1978

Born in Woodville Missouri, William Grant Still was raised by his mother, his father dying while Still was in his infancy. His mother moved them to Little Rock where she taught at a high school and remarried. Still’s new stepfather fostered his interest in music, especially operetta, infusing him with such an enthusiasm that he abandoned his scientific studies at Wilberforce University in favour of musical activities. He found employment with dance bands and wrote arrangements for W.C. Handy, the noted exponent of early Blues music. Studies at the Oberlin Conservatoire were interrupted by the First World War, and while in the army Still played violin.

After the war, Still worked again for Handy, also earning an income playing oboe. He studied with Varèse and at the New England Conservatoire before holding a Guggenheim Fellowship (1934-35) and earning several honorary doctorates. Still was a keen activist for his people, keen to use the term ‘African-American’ to describe his racial provenance in preference to the other terms in currency. When writing his First Symphony he intended to represent his culture both musically and in title; hence he subtitled it ‘An African-American Symphony’, and indeed it was the first symphony by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. He dealt with racial issues more explicitly in vocal works like And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940), and later began to take issue with the entire classical establishment and their Eurocentric bias. In addition to his five symphonies he composed many stage works and themed orchestral pieces.

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