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Classical 101

William Grant Still

William Grant Still (1895-1978) has been called the "dean" of African-American composers. He was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major American Orchestra (The New York Philharmonic played his "Afro-American Symphony," in 1930), and he was also the first to conduct a major orchestra (The Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936), and the first to have an opera performed by a major company (Troubled Island performed by the New York City Opera, in 1949). He also arranged music for some major Hollywood films in the 1930's, including Herbert Ross' Pennies from Heaven and Frank Capra's Lost Horizon. You get the picture. A lot of firsts. Although born in Woodville, Mississippi, Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. The son of two teachers, he attended Wilberforce University near Xenia and also received a scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Later he studied with American composer George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of music and later, with the ultra-modern, French born composer Edgard Varèse. Again, major credentials. Certainly, Still's best-known work is his Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American") from 1930. His Symphony No. 2 in G minor ("Song of a New Race") from 1937, though not as well known, is also fascinating music, which coalesces well with two complicated notions of African-American identity that Still was grappling with; Leopold Stokowski conducted the latter with the Philadelphia Orchestra in December of 1937. But if the first Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American") “represented the Negro of days not far removed from the Civil War,â€? Stills said, then, Symphony No. 2 in G minor ("Song of a New Race") represented “the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods.â€?