Period: Early 20th Century
Born: Saturday, May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi (USA)
Died: Sunday, December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles, California (USA)
Nation of Origin: United States
Afro-American Symphony - for orchestral instruments and various percussion instruments
Suite for Violin and Piano
The Three Visions (for piano)
Troubled Island (full opera)
Sahdji (ballet) for orchestral instruments
Danzas de Panama (string quartet)
Africa (piano and orchestra)
Long known as the dean of Afro-American composers, William Grant Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to musician parents of African-American, Native American, Spanish, Irish and Scotch heritage. Following the death of Still's father when William was only a few months old, the family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the young Still began has musical education with violin lessons from a private teacher and a stack of Red Seal opera recordings bought for him by his stepfather.
Still received a B.S. degree from Wilberforce University, spending his time there conducting the band and learning to play the various instruments in it as he made his first attempts to compose and orchestrate. His subsequent studies at Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at first through his father's legacy, and later through a scholarship established just for him by the faculty.
After graduating, Still began his professional career playing in orchestras and orchestrating music, particularly for the violin, cello, and oboe. Some of the legends he worked with include Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake and Sophie Tucker and for several years, he arranged and conducted the "Deep River Hour" over CBS and WOR radio.
Later study included a period at the New England Conservatory of Music and an individual scholarship with the ultra-modern composer Edgard Varèse. In the twenties, he made his first appearances as a serious composer, receiving Guggenheim and Rosenwald Fellowships, and several important commissions including CBS, the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, Paul Whiteman, the League of Composers, and the Cleveland Orchestra. Other honors included the Jubilee Prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1944), the Freedoms Foundation Award (1953), and a prize from the US Committee for the UN, the NFMC, and the Aeolian Music Fund for his orchestral work The Peaceful Land, cited as the best musical composition honoring the United Nations (1961).
Still received countless honorary degrees from several prestigious universities, including Howard University, Oberlin College, Pepperdine University, and Peabody Conservatory. In addition, he was awarded numerous trophies and citations from organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians, the City of Los Angeles, the state of Arkansas, the state of Mississippi, the Classical Music Hall of Fame, and the National Association of Negro Musicians. He also lectured at various universities from time to time, and was a distinguished member of ASCAP.
Among his many distinctions, Still was the first Afro-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States (the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936); the first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; the first of his race to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States (Troubled Island at the City Center of New York in 1949); and the first to have an opera televised over a national network. He wrote well over 150 compositions, including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, choral pieces, and solo vocal works. He died on December 3, 1978.
Celeste Anne Headlee
Essay contributed by:
Celeste Anne Headlee
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186
Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413
Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257
Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679
Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109
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Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction
by Eric Salzman
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