William Grant Still
b. Woodville, Mississippi, USA / May 11, 1895
d. Los Angeles, California, USA / December 3, 1978
Still became the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra when the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere of his first symphony in 1931. He was also the first African-American to have an opera produced by a major company (Troubled Island, New York City Opera, 1949); and the first to receive commissions and performances from top-level American orchestras, including New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.
He began his musical activities by conducting and arranging for the band and string quartet at Wilberforce College in Ohio. After leaving that school in 1915, he earned a living playing in jazz bands and writing arrangements for them. He continued his formal studies at Oberlin College, then moved to New York in 1919 at the invitation of the celebrated band leader, W. C. Handy.
He worked freelance as an arranger for Broadway shows and popular music artists, and played oboe in theatre pit bands. All the while he continued to build a reputation for his original concert works, and continued his education with noted composers such as the conservative American, George Chadwick, and the avant-garde Frenchman, Edgard Varèse. In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, where he devoted himself primarily to composing concert and theatre works. Over the years, his catalogue came to include eight operas, five symphonies, ballets, concert suites, incidental music for plays, choral music, and songs.
He composed the jovial and uplifting Festive Overture in 1944. It won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In it, he made particularly effective use of brass and percussion.
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2019