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Classical 101

Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance: Exploring William Grant Still's 'Afro-American Symphony'

Carl Van Vechten
Wikimedia Commons
This portrait of William Grant Still was taken on March 12, 1949.

William Grant Still is best known today for his Afro-American Symphony. Still composed the work in 1930 and strove in the symphony to – in his words – "portray the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits of their African forebears."

To that end, Still infused his Afro-American Symphony with melodies redolent of the sounds of blues and African-American spirituals.

Still's Afro-American Symphony came after two other significant works in which Still also gave voice to the African-American experience, but in a different way.

Still composed those two works, Darker America and Levee Land, in the 1920s and in a musical language that attempted a blend of sounds drawn from blues and spirituals with the more dissonant style of his modernist peers – composers like Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell and Still's mentor, French arch-modernist Edgard Varèse.

For instance, in this passage near the end of Still's Darker America, harsh harmonies dress up a blues in style and form:

An excerpt from William Grant Still's 'Darker America' (1924). Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra.

And the dissonant introduction of Levee Land’s first song melts into a bluesy tune:

An excerpt from "Levee Song," the first movement of William Grant Still's 'Levee Land.' Soprano Celeste Headlee joins the Northern Arizona Wind Symphony, with Dr. Patricia J. Hoy conducting.

According to musicologist Carol Oja, in the 1920s Still and other African-American artists felt a tension between creating distinctly African-American work and abandoning that dimension in favor of other artistic priorities.

It was during those years that Still opted to compose music that embraced and expressed his African-American background in more direct ways.

For his Afro-American Symphony, Still abandoned the modernistic language of Darker America and Levee Land in favor of a style in which characteristics of blues and spirituals were not hidden beneath angular dissonances but instead shone forth with singular clarity.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.