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William Grant Still


Known as the "Dean of African-American Composers," William Grant Still, born in 1895, emerged from the picturesque landscapes of Woodville, Mississippi, and the cultural hub of Little Rock, Arkansas. Born to a family where the echoes of education resonated through his mother's role as a high school English teacher, Still's journey into the realm of music began with the violin at the tender age of 14. Yet, his passion for musical exploration led him to master many instruments, including the cello and oboe, carving his own path in the symphonic world.


In 1911, Still embarked on his musical odyssey at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where his talents flourished under the nurturing wings of the University band. It was here that he embarked on his first forays into composition and orchestration, laying the foundation for a groundbreaking career ahead. Inspired by the trailblazing endeavors of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Still's aspirations crystallized into a commitment to become a composer of concert music and opera, a decision that would shape the trajectory of American classical music.


Venturing beyond the confines of academia, Still immersed himself in the vibrant musical scene of Ohio, collaborating with luminaries such as W.C. Handy and leaving an indelible mark in the realm of commercial music. His prowess as a performer and arranger transcended the boundaries of convention, leading him to the bustling streets of Los Angeles during the golden era of film scoring in the 1930s.


Fueling his insatiable thirst for knowledge, Still's educational pursuits meandered through Oberlin College and the corridors of New England Conservatory, where he imbibed the intricacies of theory and counterpoint. Guided by the avant-garde spirit of Edgard Varèse, Still delved into the realms of experimental composition, forging a distinct musical language that echoed the zeitgeist of his time.


In a career punctuated by groundbreaking achievements, Still shattered barriers as the first African-American composer to have his symphony grace the stage of a professional orchestra in the United States. The resounding notes of Symphony no. 1 "Afro-American" reverberated through concert halls, marking a watershed moment in the annals of classical music history.


Amidst his orchestral triumphs, Still's compositions for piano emerged as gems of the repertoire, weaving intricate tapestries of melody and rhythm. His piano suite "A Deserted Plantation" stands as a poignant testament to his ability to evoke strong emotions through musical expression. The composition beckons us to confront the tangled web of our shared history, to wrestle with the ghosts of the past. Yet, amidst the echoes of bygone days, there's a beacon of hope: the enduring power of music to transcend time and space.


Beyond the grandeur of orchestral compositions, Still's oeuvre for voice and piano stands as a testament to his lyrical prowess. From the poignant verses of Langston Hughes to the evocative musings of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Still's settings of Harlem Renaissance poetry resonate with a timeless allure, weaving a rich tapestry of cultural expression.


As the curtains closed on a life adorned with accolades and accolades, William Grant Still left an indelible legacy, transcending the confines of race and genre to emerge as a beacon of inspiration for generations to come. His melodies continue to echo through the corridors of time, a testament to the enduring power of music to transcend boundaries and unite hearts in harmony.


Still’s health began to decline in 1970. He spent his last years in a convalescent home and died in Los Angeles on December 3, 1978. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. He was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.


Selected Performances


Spiritual (1936) - "Spiritual," the opening chapter of Still's 1936 piano suite, "A Deserted Plantation." Inspired by a poem from Paul Laurence Dunbar, it paints a portrait of Uncle Josh, an elderly Black man tending to a fading plantation, his dreams haunted by its former grandeur. Through "A Deserted Plantation," Still beckons us to confront the tangled web of our shared history, to wrestle with the ghosts of the past. Yet, amidst the echoes of bygone days, there's a beacon of hope: the enduring power of music to transcend time and space. And as the final notes drift away, we're left with a sense of wonder, reminded once again of the boundless beauty of the American landscape and the resilience of the human spirit.




Locating The Music


I was quite happy to find a website devoted to William Grant Still's music. Unfortunately, when I placed an order, I never received a confirmation and when I emailed support, there was no response. I eventually was able to get PayPal to refund my purchase. So, please do NOT attempt to purchase anything from this site. I also noticed the site is not secure.


There are some solo piano compositions you can find at JW Pepper. Otherwise, it's difficult to find his other solo piano compositions. If you enjoyed "Spiritual" in the above video and would like the music, please contact me through this website. It seems to be out of print.


Compositions for Piano


Africa (1928)

Three Visions Piano Suite (1936)

A Deserted Plantation Piano Suite (1936)

Blues de "Lennox Avenue" (1937)

Quit Dat Fool'Nish (1938)

Swanee River (1939)

Nervures (1939)

Cloches (1944)

Marionette (1946)

Preludes (1962)

Ring Play (1964)


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