Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, “Afro-American”

by Max Derrickson

William Grant Still
(Born in Woodville, Missouri in 1895; died in Los Angeles in 1978)

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, “Afro-American”
1. Moderato assai
2. Adagio
3. Animato
4. Lento con risulozione

[…] Still made the songs and spirituals of Black Americans the soul of much of his music, and he achieved a certain greatness in doing so.  He accomplished what Dvořák had envisioned for a National American music, and in the Pre-Civil Rights Era in America, […] Still was eventually referred to as the “Dean of African-American music.”

The Afro-American Symphony was composed in 1930 while Still was studying composition in New York with the modernist Edgar Varese.  Still’s musical notebooks at the time show a fascinating process.  Still sketched out hundreds of themes, all with descriptions, such as “joyful” and “mournful.”  Many of the themes were labelled “voodoo,” “lament” or “spiritual” – as though Still was creating a musical vocabulary that could speak across racial divides.  The Symphony No. 1 also bore a separate set of movement designations which, according to Still scholars, were meant to represent the journey of the African to, and within, the New World: “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration.”  Ultimately he chose to publish with the Italian tempo markings, calculating that the work would be taken more seriously.

The Symphony’s premiere in 1931 was met with controversy – some regarded it as a Big Band jazz piece in the guise of a “Symphony.”  But Still would not concede that his work was anything other than a Symphony of the “American Negro of the soil,” as he put it.  However it was regarded at the time, it definitely showed Still as a burgeoning master of composition, treating blues themes in the same way any composer would symphonically treat a set of themes, and this Symphony ultimately won Still much praise.  It has kept its staying power and musical relevance, and its charms are many.

The themes of all the movements are bluesy and jazz-sounding – themes that certainly use […].  The music is sophisticated and slick, powerful in emotion, and […].  It’s also beautiful: a particularly exquisite moment happens at about 4 minutes into the second movement when Still suddenly makes the world […].  Some of the Symphony’s tunes are rather like musical post cards […] which is epic and heart-touching.  Still truly had a knack for great melodies.  The conclusion of this masterful Symphony is not only […] but rousing and inspiring,