Compact Discoveries®
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2012 by Fred Flaxman

Program 191
"William Grant Still"

MUSIC
: Still: excerpt from the third movement of Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) performed by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter [Naxos 8.559174, Track 7]
[under the following]

The life and career of the African-American composer William Grant Still is a true American success story. He rose from humble beginnings to work as an arranger while studying composition with George Chadwick and Edgar Varèse. An active participant in the Harlem Renaissance, he embraced African-American forms such as the blues, spirituals, and jazz, in addition to other ethnic American genres.

MUSIC: fades out

This is Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman, and for the next hour we’re going to hear two of this composer’s finest works: his Symphony Number 1 from 1930, which is known as the Afro-American Symphony, and his three-movement symphonic poem, Africa, which is also from 1930.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on May 11, 1895, to a family of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish, and Scotch ancestry. His father was the town’s bandmaster, but he died when William was only three. His mother was a teacher.

After his father died, Still’s mother moved with him to Little Rock, where he had his first musical experience, studying the violin. At his mother’s urging, he later began medical studies, but dropped out in favor of music.

Still initially worked as an arranger for several popular performers, including W.C. Handy, composer of the St. Louis Blues, and Artie Shaw, whose hit Frenesi he orchestrated.

Still’s music studies at Oberlin College were ended by the First World War when he served in the Navy. After the war he moved to New York, working for Handy and playing the oboe in pit orchestras while he studied composition.

Still arrived in New York in the 1920s, at the time of the cultural awakening of African-Americans known as the Harlem Renaissance. This is when his attention turned to classical composition for good. In 1930 he moved to Los Angeles to work as an arranger for Paul Whiteman. There he also expanded his horizons into film and radio. That year saw the composition of both works that we are going to listen to in this hour, beginning with Still’s First Symphony, the Afro-American. This work remains to this day his most popular and most recorded work.

In this Naxos compact disc, the Fort Smith, Arkansas, Symphony is conducted by John Jeter.

MUSIC: Still: Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) performed by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter [Naxos 8.559174, Tracks 5, 6, 7, and 8] [24:57]

William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, the Afro-American. John Jeter conducted the Fort Smith Symphony, the oldest orchestra in the state of Arkansas, founded in 1923. Jeter has been its conductor since 1997.

You are listening to the music of William Grant Still on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[optional one-minute break not included in the total timing]


Like many African-Americans of his generation, Still achieved many “firsts.” He was the first to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra. That was in 1935 when the New York Philharmonic performed the symphony you just heard. Still was the first to conduct a major orchestra -- the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. He was the first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South -- the New Orleans Philharmonic in 1955. The first to have an opera produced by a major company, when the New York City Opera performed Troubled Island in 1949. And the first to have an opera broadcast on television -- A Bayou Legend which was broadcast by PBS in 1981, three years after his death.

Still began work on his symphonic poem, Africa, in 1924. It was originally written for chamber orchestra. Then he re-orchestrated it for full orchestra. Howard Hanson conducted the premiere of both versions, the second in 1930 in Rochester, New York. Still said it aroused a sensation, and it had successful German and French performances the following year. But Still was still not totally satisfied, revising it six times before, strangely enough, he withdrew the work, leaving it unpublished.

Africa has three movements: Land of Peace, Land of Romance, and Land of Superstition. Here it is performed by the Fort Smith Symphony under John Jeter from the same Naxos CD as the Afro-American Symphony.

MUSIC: Still: Africa (Symphonic Poem) performed by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter [Naxos 8.559174, Tracks 2, 3, and 4] [27:51]

Africa, a symphonic poem by William Grant Still. The Fort Smith Symphony was conducted by John Jeter.

MUSIC: Still: excerpt from the first movement of Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) performed by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter [Naxos 8.559174, Track 7] [under the following]

And that concludes this hour of Compact Discoveries. If you missed any of this program or would like to hear it again, go to compactdiscoveries.com on the internet, where you’ll find links to stream Compact Discoveries programs on demand without charge. At the website you’ll also find scripts for every Compact Discoveries program with complete information on every selection. There are other features there as well, including my lists of recommended music, concert DVDs, and CDs and DVDs of classics for kids.

This is Fred Flaxman thanking David Ciucevich for the program notes he wrote for the Naxos CD, which gave me the information I passed on to you. And thank you for listening. I hope that you’ll join me next time for more Compact DIscoveries.

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ANNOUNCER (Steve Jencks): Compact Discoveries is made possible in part by the financial support of Isabel and Marvin Leibowitz, and an anonymous donor from Palm Beach, Florida. And by contributions to local public radio stations by listeners like you. Thank you. [0:13]

Total Program Timing: 58:00