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Afro-American Symphony for Band

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William Grant Still

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

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General Info

Year: 1930 / 1970
Duration: c. 24:55
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Symphony
Publisher: William Grant Still Music
Cost: Score and Parts (print) - $1000.00   |   Score Only (print) - $29.95


1. Longing – 7:45
2. Sorry – 5:15
3. Humor – 3:15
4. Aspiration – 8:40


Full Score
Flute I-II-III
Oboe I-II
English Horn
Bassoon I-II
E-flat 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
String Bass
Percussion, including:

  • Vibraphone


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

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 (N.Y.) 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 liner notes for Naxos CD William Grant Still

Commercial Discography

None discovered thus far.

State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


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Works for Winds by this Composer