I went for a drive this morning like I do every morning to get coffee, but this drive was different. Today’s drive changed my view on classical music forever. Today, I discovered the music of William Grant Still.
The car turns on and the radio kicks in. It’s on 89.9 All Classical Portland and I’m not really feeling the song (“Swedish Rhapsody No. 2” by Hugo Alfven). I’ve never heard of the composer. Nothing against him, it just isn’t my style.
Put the car in reverse and head out to the exit of my apartment complex and, surprisingly, there isn’t a wait to get out. Traffic is minimal to nonexistent. The drive is now above-average.
As I get to the coffee shop the song changes. It’s a really catchy string piece with a dark and mysterious feel to it (“Humoresque No. 6 in G” by Jean Sibelius; performed by Ilya Gringolts).
I feel like the captain of a newly christened vessel setting off to explore the new world with my feathered bicorne hat and a sabre at my side. It is optimistic but anxious, light but heavy-hitting, and when it ends it leaves you wanting more with an insanely beautiful outro. This piece ends as I am grabbing my coffee from the cashier and I begin exiting the driveway to head back towards my apartment.
When I exit the driveway and get onto the road to head home the song changes again. It pierces my eardrums and brings a smile to my face immediately. This sound that I am hearing is amazing. Who is this amazing composer?
The screen in my center console says it is “Folk Suite No. 2” by William Grant Still.
How have I never heard of William Grant Still before?
If you played me a lineup of Debussy, Dvorak, Bernstein, Gershwin, or any other composer of equal acclaim I would have told you he deserved to be considered right up there with the rest of the best of them. Yet in over ten years of listening to classical music since I first really opened up to the genre I have never heard of William Grant Still.
Who was he? What was his story?
The first thing I did when I got home was look up his piece “Folk Suite No. 2”. I was only able to find a small portion of the suite from a different recording. I could not find the full version anywhere.
I scoured the internet for every link that was tied to “William Grant Still Folk Suite No. 2” to no avail. Finally, after searching the 89.9 All Classical website I was able to find the album that the track they played came from. It was recorded by the Oregon String Quartet with Fritz Gearhart on violin.
A Google search of Fritz Gearhart led me to a new hope of finding the musical masterpiece by Still. Gearhart’s website was selling the album with the exact Folk Suite I had been searching over an hour for. Just to make sure it was not a fluke I sent him an email. In about an hour or so he responded to let me know it was still available on the website. The album is en route to me as I type this and the link is here.
With my quest for the recording out of the way, the mystery of how I had never heard of William Grant Still remained.
Who was he? Why isn’t his music very prominently played on classical networks?
William Grant Still was Born on May 11th, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro and William Grant Still, Sr. His father was a music teacher, but passed away when he was only three. His mother Carrie later moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. His mother remarried a man named Charles Shepperson who took Still under his wing and inspired him by taking him to many live music performances.
After graduating high school as the valedictorian, Still went on to study medicine before deciding that his true passion was music. He would serve in World War I before recommitting to music after “the Great War” ended.
He was a champion of the Harlem Renaissance while he lived in New York during the 1920’s before moving to Los Angeles in the 1930’s.
His legacy as a musician includes being the first African-American composer to write a symphony that was performed for an American audience (“Afro-American Symphony” Symphony No. 1) as well as the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic). In 1955 William Grant Still also became the first African-American to conduct a major all-white orchestra in the deeply segregated southern United States (New Orleans Philharmonic).
Upon further digging, I came across a piece written on the University of Southern California News website in which they spoke to Still’s daughter. An excerpt is included below:
At the time of his death, interest in his work had dwindled to such a degree that not a single viable recording of his compositions existed and only a handful of performances of his music, including radio broadcasts, were being given on average each year.
In 1980, determined to resurrect her father’s legacy, his daughter founded William Grant Still Music, now based in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she now lives.
“This is going to be easy,” she thought at the start. “But I’d write to conductors and they wouldn’t answer, or I’d write to record companies and they’d tell me black classical music doesn’t sell.”
Reading this broke my heart.
As soon as I finished researching who William Grant Still was I realized why I had never heard of him. He was an African-American classical composer trying to make his way in a country and time that didn’t want to see African-Americans succeed.
How many classical composers have had to give up on their talent because they could not make money playing or have their own music played just because of the color of their skin? How many composers better than Beethoven or Mozart may there have been if we didn’t have a stupid stigma tied to the pigment we are born with? How many great composers’ works do we never hear simply because nobody has fought for them to continue to be heard?
We may learn and talk about the history of segregation in the United States of America, but it goes so much deeper than one can fathom when we speak about the most obvious examples in schools and the media. I guess I should have known that racism has held back the careers of thousands, if not millions, of musicians. However, hearing a piece of music so beautiful and realizing that the main reason you’ve probably never heard it before is due to racism is sobering to say the least.
William Grant Still was an American hero, and his legacy and music should not be forgotten.
Please enjoy some of his tracks that I have linked below and share them so his legacy might live on a bit stronger.
Horne, Aaron. Woodwind Music of Black Composers. Greenwood Press – New York, 1990.
Bell, Susan. “Still standing after all these years.” USC News, USC, January 11, 2013.