Spotlight: William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony

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Friday, February 01, 2013

William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” is the first symphony composed by an African American that was performed by a major orchestra. Written in 1930, its first performance was given in Rochester, New York in 1931. The symphony was also played by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall and by more than 30 nationwide orchestras solely in the 1930s. The Afro-American Symphony is Still’s most popular and most performed work.  

The symphony encompasses elements of jazz and is also influenced by the blues. Still wanted to demonstrate how the blues could be raised to the highest musical rank, as it was often considered to be music of the lower class. The symphony is comprised of four movements: “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor” and “Aspiration.” The first movement uses many different influences to create a cornucopia of sound. The second is calm and reflective of the first movement. The third movement creates a light-hearted atmosphere by using fast rhythmic patterns. And the fourth opens with a somber melody in the strings and closes with a grandiose and satisfying finale.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11th, 1895. He was first introduced to classical music when his family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, he began taking violin lessons. Still studied medicine at Wilberforce University, followed by music studies at Oberlin College, which were suspended due to naval service in the 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 spent his final years and died on December 3, 1978. -- Serena Creary


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Comments [2]

Bernard James from Queens New York


I did not know that a African Composed The Afro American Symphony, many of my people have never hard this not even on the so-called radio stations and most of all WQXR has not played this symphony at all and I feel that Race's just don't get the music right. All I see and hear is white people music mostly European music and I feel that this has not been for one African composer in Germany who wrote the best of the ninth symphony when he could not hear.

Many of the Americans must learn the true history of black music and mostly black Americans have learn also their history of music, mostly the young of today.

Jan. 19 2015 01:36 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

William Grant Still was also an arranger and orchestrator for W.C. Handy, Paul Whiteman and Donald Voorhees, the latter a CBS staff orchestra conductor, and probably best remembered as the conductor for the "Bell Telephone Hour". There's no doubt his compositional skill benefitted from those associations. The "Afro-American Symphony" sounds fresh to me and I can't understand why it isn't programmed more often.

Feb. 01 2013 08:22 AM

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About Black History Month

WQXR commemorates Black History Month with a range of programming throughout February. Discover new works by black composers, and classic performances by African-American artists.