Max Derrickson

Writing Music Program Notes for Over 30 Years

Tag: William Grant Still

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

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. …

Panamanian Dances (Danzas de Panama) for String Quartet

In 1955, when most African-American citizens in the South couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountain as their white neighbors, composer William Grant Still achieved a breakthrough – he was the first African-American to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic. It was, certainly, only one of the many steps toward racial equality (in that same year, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to obey bus segregation), but in the Deep South in 1955, Still’s accomplishment was nonetheless an extraordinary one. That 1955 program with him as the conductor highlighted several of Still’s own works, including his Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1, 1930) in which Still was just mastering the technique of giving voice to folksong elements, specifically African-American song and rhythm, in the “classical” Neo-Romantic style. If George Gershwin started that idea in 1924 with his Rhapsody in Blue, Still carried it further into the concert hall and perfected it. Such is the case with his marvelous Panamanian Dances for string quartet which he premiered in 1948.