Continuing an exploration of work of black composers in this, Black History Month, I turn to William Grant Still, one of the best-known black composers. The difficulty black composers have faced in history can be illustrated in the fact that Still lived from 1895 to 1978, dying in my lifetime, and yet many of his works are already lost. Still was born in Arkansas, where his musical life began, but his life later took him to Ohio, New York (where he is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance), and finally to Los Angeles, where the house in which he lived is now designated a Los Angeles Historical Monument. Still was a prolific composer over his long life, and he achieved things in music that would be the pride of any composer, much less a black one from a country not historically known for rewarding the creative efforts of its minorities.
Still wrote his symphonic poem Africa in 1930, after he had spent his youth working in W.C. Handy’s band and studying composition with Edgar Varese. Still’s style combines African-American sounds–blues, spirituals–with traditional orchestral writing. Africa comprises a musical depiction of a continent to which Still never traveled, and he would describe the work as “the Africa of my imagination.” He even opens the piece with distant drums tapping an almost tribal rhythm before the more plaintive orchestral writing begins. Still described his work, which traces three movements, in a letter thusly:
“An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore, and influenced by his contact with American civilization. He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.
I. He views it first as a land of peace; peace that is partly pastoral in nature and partly spiritual.
II. It is to him also a land of fanciful and mysterious romance; romance tinged with ineffable sorrow.
III. Contact with American civilization has not enabled him to completely overcome his inherent superstitious nature. It is that heritage of his forebears binding him irrevocably to the past, and making it possible for him to form the most definite concept of Africa.”
Africa is a lyrical and rhythmic work that seems to sway and dance with sound that recalls blues and spirituals, but in a more distant way, hinting at the ancestral home of the musical traditions that African-Americans would make central to their often sad experiences in America. It’s a fascinating piece.
Here is Africa by William Grant Still.