This, by Black composer William Grant Still, is one of the most evocatively titled works I’ve ever heard, and I only heard it for the first time yesterday. Its title makes clear why I am featuring it today, after I found it simply by searching YouTube under the composer’s name. The piece is called And They Lynched Him On A Tree.
It is not a tone poem at all, strictly speaking; composer William Grant Still called it a “choral ballad”, but sometimes it is classified as an oratorio or even a music play. It’s only about twenty minutes long and it’s deeply striking and effective, so one can only conjecture why this piece has apparently been very rarely performed since its composition in 1940. I assume it’s the very subject matter that leads to that reticence, because the music itself is fascinating and dramatic. Also, maybe performing groups are put off by the stark symbolism laid bare by the work’s scoring. It uses a chamber orchestra with two choruses, one white and one black. The white chorus is the lynch mob, and the black one is the mourners of the man who has been hanged. A contralto soloist plays the victim’s mother, and there is a narrator who performs in rhythmic speech to illuminate the story.
Still is a composer who needs further exploration, and not just by me. Every time I hear his music I am struck by its raw originality and the way he couches deep feeling and emotion in the sounds of twentieth-century Modernism. Greg Sandow wrote of Still
, when discussing this piece:
And let’s not marginalize William Grant Still. I’m not equipped right now to do a deep assessment of his work, but after listening casually to an array of pieces over the past week, I’d say he’s way overdue for a revival. Music written with great skill, immediately attractive, often (but not always) populist, often (but not always) depicting African-American life. And he’s a master orchestrator. Has a major catalogue of work — five symphonies, eight operas, much more.
He hated being called, as he often was, “the dean of black composers.” If he was called that, he’d say (with, I can imagine, such disdain), why wasn’t Copland the dean of white composers?
It’s time to honor that thought, and take the label “black composer” away from Still’s memory. He’s an American composer, who along with Roy Harris, Copland, Walter Piston, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, and many others we all can name, was a major figure of his time. He should be ranked with the others.
That sounds about right to me.
Here is And They Lynched Him On A Tree
by William Grant Still. Unsettling music, for an unsettling time.
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