Still: Afro-American Symphony, In Memoriam, Africa / Jeter, Fort Smith Symphony

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The life and career of the African-American composer William Grant Still certainly qualifies as the quintessential American success story. Often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on 11th May, 1895.

Like many of his generation, Still achieved many ‘firsts’: first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra (1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro-American); first to conduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic); first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955, New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera produced by a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New York City Opera) and first to have an opera broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend, PBS).

Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the ‘Afro-American’ Symphony that established Still’s reputation worldwide. It rapidly established itself in the repertoire, including the New York Philharmonic performance at Carnegie Hall and performances by 34 other American orchestras in the 1930s alone. Still succinctly described his goals in writing the work: ‘I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.’

The brief orchestral work In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy was the most successful of a group of works on patriotic themes commissioned by the League of Composers during the Second World War. The wording of the title does carry an ironic aspect, reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fighting for world freedom and civilization abroad while being denied those very freedoms at home.

Africa is one of Still’s grandest achievements. Still began work on it in 1924, envisioning it as the first part of a trilogy of works depicting the African- American experience: Africa representing their roots, the Afro-American Symphony life in America, and Symphony No. 2: Saga of a New Race, a vision of an integrated society. Still originally wrote the work for chamber orchestra, dedicating it to the eminent French flautist George Barrère, the dedicatee of Varèse’s Density 21.5, who gave the first performance with the Barrère Little Symphony in 1930. Constantly refining the work, Still re-orchestrated it for full orchestra. Still, however, was not totally satisfied, revising it six times before he, strangely, withdrew the work, leaving it unpublished. -David Ciucevich

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 22, 2005

  • Catalog Number: 8559174

  • UPC: 636943917428

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: William Grant Still

  • Conductor: John Jeter

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Fort Smith Symphony