American Composer | May 1895 – December 1978
Ranked among the greatest American composers, William Grant Still was nicknamed the “Dean of African American Composers” for the many firsts he achieved during his substantial career. He was the first African American to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra (Symphony No. 1 performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931); conduct a major American orchestra in his own music (Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936); and have an opera performed by a major opera company (Troubled Island performed by the New York City Opera in 1949) and nationally televised (Bayou Legend televised in 1981).
Though more well-known today as a symphonist, he embraced all of America’s music, composing and arranging a variety of works from film scores, art songs and popular music to symphonies, operas, concerti, and chamber music. Still flourished in his compositional career; during a time when Jazz was the epitome of Black artistic expression, he managed to forge a difficult path and claim his right of access to the world of classical music. Still utilized the expressive liberties claimed by White modernists while rejecting their elitism and conveyed the struggles of being a Black person in America through his music—an experience that was quite uncommon within the primarily White realm he was navigating.
Presently, while diversity in classical music has improved, the reality is still bleak especially for composers. A difficult hurdle to maneuver once a work is completed is getting a significant orchestra or ensemble to premiere it, granting the composer exposure and further access in an already exclusionary field. Additionally, many Black composers were historically confined to the Jazz or Blues genres—if not outright ignored—with the assumption that the Black experience and sound was monolithic. As a result, many Black composers—historically and contemporarily—have gone largely unnoticed and forgotten.
Text adapted from concert notes for Revisiting William Grant Still.