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Symphony I (Still)

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William Grant Still

William Grant Still (arr. Robert O. O'Brien)


Subtitle: Afro-American


General Info

Year: 1931 / 1946
Duration: c. 24:00
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Orchestra
Publisher: William Grant Still Music
Cost: Score and Parts (print) - $800.00

Each movement is available separately ($200.00)


Movements

1. Longing (Moderato assai) - 6:35
2. Sorrow (Adagio) - 4:35
3. Humor (Animato) - 3:10
4. Aspiration (Lento, con risoluzione) - 7:20


Instrumentation

Full Score
Flute I-II-III (III doubling C Piccolo)
Oboe I-II
English Horn
Bassoon I-II
E-flat Soprano Clarinet
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
B-flat Bass Clarinet
E-flat Alto Saxophone I-II
B-flat Tenor Saxophone
E-flat Baritone Saxophone
B-flat Trumpet I-II-III
Horn in F I-II-III-IV
Trombone I-II-III
Euphonium
Tuba
String Bass
Harp
Celeste
Timpani
Percussion, including:

  • Bass Drum
  • Crash Cymbals
  • Glockenspiel
  • Snare Drum
  • Suspended Cymbals (2; large and small)
  • Tam-Tam
  • Vibraphone
  • Wood Block

Banjo


Errata

None discovered thus far.


Program Notes

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, "Afro-American" (1930) by William Grant Still was the first symphony written by an African American and performed for a United States audience by a leading orchestra. It was premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a symphonic piece for full orchestra, including celeste, harp, and tenor banjo. It combines a fairly traditional symphonic form with blues progressions and rhythms that were characteristic of popular African-American music at the time. This combination expressed Still's integration of black culture into the classical forms. Still used quotes from four dialect poems by early 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as epigraphs for each symphonic movement.

- Program Note from Wikipedia


Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the ‘Afro-American’ Symphony that established Still’s reputation worldwide. It was first given in 1931 by that indefatigable champion of his fellow composers, Howard Hanson, with the Rochester (NY) Symphony. It rapidly established itself in the repertoire, including the New York Philharmonic performance at Carnegie Hall and performances by 34 other American orchestras in the 1930s alone.

Still succinctly described his goals in writing the work: ‘I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.’ After the work’s completion, Still appended verse by Paul Lawrence Dunbar to illuminate the mood of each movement. A deeply religious man, he inscribed the work (as he did each of his works) to God, ‘the source of all inspiration’.

The first movement, Longing, begins with the principal melody, an original twelve-bar blues melody stated by the English horn. The instrumental colour cannot fail to bring to mind the nostalgic solo for the same instrument in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Still submits this melody to thematic transformation throughout the work in the Lisztian tradition with great craftsmanship. Throughout this movement, the essential three-chord harmonic structure of the blues acts as a powerful underpinning to moods of brooding and exultation. The second theme in the oboe represents another major genre of African-American music, the spiritual. A vigorous development of these materials leads to their recapitulation in reverse order. The final appearance of the blues theme, fully orchestrated, leads to an affirmative ending in the major.

The slow movement, Sorrow, depicts the strength of an oppressed people, bloodied but not broken. Solo oboe over flute and string accompaniment presents the main theme. The blues theme of the first movement reappears later in the flute, vacillating between major and minor. Slowly rolled harp arpeggios accompany a transformation of the oboe theme. Both themes return in reverse order to close the movement.

The third movement fulfills the traditional scherzo function. Entitled Humor, it is the most popular of the four movements and is often performed independently. The third major genre of African-American music, dance music, which encompasses ragtime and jazz, is celebrated with distinctive syncopated cross-rhythms and ‘backbeat’ figures. The use of the banjo (the first use of the instrument in a symphony) adds local colour to the festive atmosphere. A tune vaguely reminiscent of George Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm appears here. Still’s melody predates Gershwin’s, the tune being improvised by Still in the 1920s while performing in the Broadway show Shuffle Along. As contemporaries who moved in the same circles and admired each other’s work, Still and Gershwin consciously and unconsciously influenced each other.

The finale, Aspiration, provides a noble peroration as it unites the themes and style of the previous movements, demonstrating that a distinctive American voice in music is intrinsically tied to the musics and contributions of African-Americans.

- Program Note for orchestral version by David Ciucevich for Naxos CD William Grant Still


William Grant Still (1985-1978) was undoubtedly one of the most influential African-American composers of the early 20th century. He started his musical career playing oboe in the pit orchestra of an All-Black musical, Shuffle Along, in 1921. His composition career started when he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the era of Jim Crow segregation, when Oberlin was one of the few major conservatories that admitted black students. The premiere of Still’s Afro-American Symphony in 1931 signaled one of the earliest works by an African-American composer to gain a place in the orchestral canon, and it has held up well over time. In the work’s title, Still identified his race with pride, inspired by the cultural activism of the Harlem Renaissance. Prior to studying music at Oberlin, Still studied medicine at Wilberforce University and served in the Navy during World War I. Later, he moved to New York and studied composition with George Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. He then traveled to Los Angeles, where he s he spent his final years and died on December 3, 1978.

Still’s Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” met with great controversy among the press when it was first played by a major symphony. Some felt that the piece belonged with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a jazz group that Still often played with, and others who felt that the melding of classical elements with African-American Culture was brilliant. Still wanted to “portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears and who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.”

The symphony has four movements, each of which has two different sets of titles, signaling the cultural bifurcation that defined Still’s career. One version is thoroughly European: “Moderato assai,” “Adagio,” “Animato,” and “Lento, con risoluzione,” while the other, as found in one of Still’s notebooks, refers to African-American history: “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration.” In the end, because Still wanted to be taken seriously as a symphony composer, he published the work with the traditional European movement titles.

Still was studying with Edgard Varèse when he wrote the first symphony. He kept detailed notebooks with hundreds of themes, each labeled with the theme’s effect. He used terms such as voodoo, lament, and spiritual. Reading these notebooks, one gets a sense that he was assimilating two cultures to come up with a symphony that made a larger than life statement.

Each movement has a separate character and the original titles – “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration” – tell the story. The first movement opens with a haunting English horn blues solo that is then echoed in several other instruments throughout the movement. The second movement has an F major tonal center with many chromatic alternations that maintain the blues feeling. The movement works to avoid Western European music’s drive to a cadence; the absence of cadences leaves the listener with a sense of ambiguity. The third movement uses essentially two minstrel themes, with small variations that depict a joyous, hallelujah feeling. The use of the tenor banjo adds to the magic and down-home feel of the movement. It is the only movement that uses the traditional Western European drive toward cadence, so this accounts for the completeness that the listener enjoys. The final movement is full of hope. Its themes, tempo variations, and harmonies give the listener a sense of desire, expectation, and dreams.

Still selected poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), which serve as four epigraphs in the context of longer quotations. The poems used as epigraphs for the first two movements refer to the dreams and sorrows of the former slaves. The opening stanza of “Twell de Night Is Pas’,” prefacing the opening movement with its blues theme, reads:

All de night long twell de moon goes down,
Lovin’ I set at huh feet,
Den fu’ de long jou’ney back f’om de town,
Ha’d, but de dreams mek it sweet.
Still quotes the close:
"All my life long twell de night has pas’
Let de wo’k come ez it will,
So dat I fin’ you, my honey, at last,

Somewhaih des ovah de hill."

The first stanza of “W’en I Gits Home” is attached to the slow second movement, with its spiritual-like melody:

It’s moughty tiahsome layin’ ’roun’
Dis sorrer-laden erfly groun',
An’ oftentimes I thinks, thinks I,
‘T would be a sweet t’ing des to die,

An go ’long home.

The upbeat third movement poem shows how effectively Still used the “minstrel mask” to reflect his sense of racial doubleness:

We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,
In dis howlin’ wildaness,
Fu’ to speak some words of comfo’t
To each othah in distress.

So you see de Lawd’s intention,
Evah sence de worl’ began,
Was dat His almighty freedom
Should belong to evah man,

But when Moses wif his powah
Comes an’ sets us chillun free,
We will praise de gracious Mastah
Dat has gin us liberty;
An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs,
On dat mighty reck’nin' day,
When we’se reco’nised ez citiz’—

Hun un! Chillun, let us pray!


The final movement, with its hymn-like, modal opening, was first assigned the final stanza from Dunbar’s “Ode to Ethiopia”:

Go on and up! Our souls and eyes
Shall follow thy continuous rise;
Our ears shall list thy story
From bards who from thy root shall spring,
And proudly tune their lyres to sing

Of Ethiopia’s Glory.

All printed editions of the score bear this rather better-known stanza from the same poem:

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ’mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.

- Program Note compiled by Gerard Morris and used with permission by the Still family and Sandra Ragusa, Montgomery Philharmonic Orchestra.


Media

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State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


Performances

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Works for Winds by This Composer


Resources

  • Gerard Morris, personal correspondence, May 2019
  • The Horizon Leans Forward…, compiled and edited by Erik Kar Jun Leung, GIA Publications, 2021, p. 487.
  • Sandra Ragusa, personal correspondence, June 2019
  • Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American", Wikipedia Accessed 21 May 2019