One of the finest Black composers of the 20th century, William Grant Still lived from 1895 to 1978, bearing witness to the growth of the American vernacular in classical music, as well as the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Still’s work occasionally sounds almost like a rougher answer to Gershwin–in fact, the work heard below contains what seems to almost be a quote from Gershwin in its third movement–but Still is much more than that. He was prolific, writing five symphonies, nine operas, and a number of other works in many forms and genres. Still was also a proficient session musician on his own, playing in many bands and orchestras over his life, and he did a bit of arranging work for film. Still was in many ways a trailblazer, in much the same way that Florence Price was.
This work is his most well-known: the first of his five symphonies, subtitled “The Afro-American”. The work blends the sounds of spirituals with the emergent sounds of jazz. Formally, it is purely a symphony in the European tradition, but it is well-steeped in the sounds of the Black vernacular of the time. It’s dramatic, lyrical, and at times, thrilling.
Here is the “Afro-American Symphony” by William Grant Still.