Spotlight: William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony

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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