William Grant Still, classical music composer

William Grant Still image

William Grant Still


Often referred to as "The Dean of African-American Composers," William Grant Still was an important and influential figure in 20th century American classical music. His oeuvre encompasses more than 150 compositions, and he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra, have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, an opera staged by a major opera company, and an opera performed on national television.

Born in Woodwille, Mississippi on May 11, 1895, Still's father died just three months later. His mother relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she married Charles B. Shepperson. Still's mother and grandmother was influential in kindling his interest in music and the arts, and Shepperson helped further develop it by taking him to see operettas and buying him recordings of classical music. Still began violin lessons at the age of fifteen and later taught himself to play saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola. At the age of sixteen, he entered Wilberforce University where he conducted the university band and became interested in composition and orchestration. He later won a scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he studied by Friedrick Lehmann and George Whitefield Chadwick; he also studied with Edgard Varèse.

Following a brief period in the United States Navy during World War I, Still found work producing arrangements for W. C. Handy and Paul Whiteman. He began a fruitful relationship with radio, writing and arranging for various programs. His first prominent success as a composer, however, came in 1931 when his first symphony "Afro-American" premiered in Rochester, New York. "Afro-American" remains Still's most well-known work today. In 1934, he moved to Los Angles and began film scores, among which are Lost Horizon and Pennies from Heaven. Later, Still worked on several television shows including Perry Mason and Gunsmoke.

While working as a film composer, Still also began working on much more ambitious and large-scale works, including the ballet Lenox Avenue and the operas, Blue Steel and Troubled Island. In 1949, Troubled Island, based on the first Emperor of Haiti with a libretto provided by Langston Hughes, premiered at the New York City Opera to positive reviews. Throughout the 1940s, Still's works continued to be influenced by political and racial themes. In the 1950s, he turned to the composition of music for children. William Grant Still died on December 3, 1978.

Composer Title Date Action
William Grant Still Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American" 03/24/2009 Play Add to playlist