William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) opened new vistas for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century, becoming the first black composer to fuse the blues and jazz successfully in symphonies anti extended orchestral forms. In addition, he composed solo and chamber works, as well as choral music, art songs, and operas, and he established himself as one of the first black composers to write for film and television.
Despite his celebrity within the African American community and his publicized successes, American music historians largely ignored Still until the final decades of the twentieth century. By the end of the century, tensions and dialogue within the academy over representation of women and minority composers within the musical canon brought awareness in some circles of the need for more inclusiveness. The publication of the third movement of Still's Afro-American Symphony (1930) in the widely used Norton Anthology of Western Music (3d ed., 2 vols., ed. Claude V. Palisca [New York: W. W. Norton, 1996], 2:822-38), as well as his posthumous induction into the American Classical Hall of Fame (1998), conferred on Still the distinction of becoming the first black composer of art music to have his works elevated to the American musical canon.
Among academic dissertations and theses on the composer are Leon Everette Thompson's "A Historical and Stylistic Analysis of the Music of William Grant Still and a Thematic Catalog of His Works" (D.M.A. thesis, University of Southern California, 1966), Benjamin Griffith Edwards's "Life of William Grant Still" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1987), Paul-Elliott Cobbs's "William Grant Still's The Afro-American Symphony: A Culturally Inclusive Perspective" (D.M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1990), and Gayle Minetta Murchison's "Nationalism in William Grant Still and Aaron Copland between the Wars: Style and Ideology" (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1998). Other significant literature includes William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music (ed. Robert Bartlett Haas [Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1972]; 2d ed., ed. Judith Anne Still [Flagstaff, Ariz.: Master-Player Library, 1995]), Verna Arvey's memoir In One Lifetime (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1984), Carol J. Oja's "'New Music' and the 'New Negro': The Background of William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony' (Black Music Research Journal 12 : 145-69), and William Grant Still: A Bio-bibliography, by Judith Anne Still, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin (Bio-bibliographies in Music, 61 [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996]).
Catherine Parson Smith's William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions is a welcome addition to this growing body of research. The volume contains a brief chronology of Still's life by Quin, separate essays by Willard B. Gatewood and Gayle Murchison, five essays penned by Smith, and five primary documents culled from writings by Still, Arvey, Harold Bruce Forsythe, anti Irving schwerke Collectively, these materials shad light on Still's aesthetic development (primarily in the 1930s) within the context of the "much-contested personal, professional, and cultural landscape in which he worked" (p. 1), and they help delineate the underlying processes whereby he sought fusion of European and African American vernacular musical traditions in order to create a genuinely new, American voice.
While Gatewood's opening essay, "The Formative Years of William Grant Still: Little Rock, Arkansas, 1895-1911," contributes little new biographical information on Still, it provides a context for understanding the middle-class black community of Little Rock, where he was raised. Murchison's more substantial essay, "'Dean of Afro-American Composers' or 'Harlem Renaissance Man': The New Negro and the Musical Poetics of William Grant Still," examines Still's relationship to the Harlem Renaissance, especially Alain Locke and The New Negro (1925). The author categorizes Still's work into three stylistic periods--the "ultramodern period" (represented by Darker America, 1924), the "racial music" from 1925, and the "universal period" from 1932 on-- and argues that his compositions fully realize Locke's ideas by "[e]ndeavoring to create both an African American art music and an American art music" (p. 48).
Smith's solid essays explore new aspects of Still's biography and stylistic development from the perspectives of race, class, and gender. "Finding His Voice: William Grant Still in Los Angeles" examines his "efforts to bridge the gap that had developed between" the high modernism of his New York years "and the traditional concert audience" he sought "to expand across lines of race and class" (p. 76); "An Unknown 'New Negro'" reconstructs the biography of Harold Bruce Forsythe (1908-1976), an associate and the librettist of Still's first opera, Blue Steel (1934-35); "The Afro-American Symphony and Its Scherzo" analyzes a movement from Still's best-known work with the aid of newly available sketches, notes, and diaries by the composer; "they, Verna and Billy" dissects Still's interracial marriage and his collaboration with his second wife, Arvey; and "'Harlem Renaissance Man' Revisited: The Politics of Race and Glass in Still's Late Career," perhaps the most controversial of Smith's essays, revisits Still's co nspiracy theory regarding critical reception of his later works, especially Troubled Island (1949).
Though one might question Smith's ordering of the primary sources that conclude the volume, these documents are most valuable, especially the first four, which present previously unpublished material. The document "Personal Notes, written by Still in response to Forsythe's letter of 1933 (see below), records new information about the composer's adolescence and Oberlin years and contains miscellaneous jottings about early musical friends, associates, and compositions; "William Grant Still and Irving Schwerke: Documents from a Long-Distance Friendship," ably edited by Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress, contains informative correspondence between the composer and Paris-based music critic Schwerke (1893-1975), an early supporter; Forsythe's 1930 essay, "William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions" (from which the book's title is derived), is actually the earliest known detailed commentary on Still's music; and Forsythe's letter to Still (ca. 1933) details his "Plan for a Biography of Still" that unfort unately never materialized. The fifth and final source, Arvey's 1939 essay "William Grant Still" (introduction by John Tasker Howard), supplies reflections by Still about his early compositions and career.
The entire volume is rigorously researched and well documented. It signals the coming of age of Still scholarship as a promising field of inquiry.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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