William Grant Still: Song of a New Race
William Grant Still has been called “the dean” of African-American composers. Although he is best known for his Afro-American Symphony from 1930, this evening on Symphony at 7, we’ll have his Second Symphony from 1937, Song of a New Race.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1895 to parents who were both teachers, William Grant Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then had an Ohio connection as well. He graduated from Wilberforce University, a historically black college, and he was awarded a scholarship at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He went on to have a distinguished career in music.
Still achieved fame in 1930 when the New York Philharmonic performed his First Symphony, but his success was mixed and brought him jobs mainly as an arranger. In Hollywood, he worked as an arranger on one of my all-time favorite movies, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon with a film score written by Dmitri Tiomkin In 1937, Leopold Stokowski conducted the new Symphony in G minor with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The composer said of this work, “The Afro-American Symphony represented the Negro of days not far removed from the Civil War. The Symphony in G minor represents the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of white, Indian, and Negro bloods….” If, as the composer said, the First Symphony was about “Yearnings”,” Sorrow”, “Humor”, and “Aspiration” (the titles of its four movements), the Second Symphony went beyond yearning to active effort, and as one commentator put it, ” aspiration is now tempered with the desire to give to humanity the best that their African heritage has given them.”
William Grant still was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and went on to write eight operas as well. This evening you can enjoy the rarely heard, but engaging, Symphony No. 2, Song of a New Race on Symphony at 7.