Composer Spotlight

Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American”

Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American”

William Grant Still

BORN May 11, 1895 | Woodville, Mississippi

DIED December 3, 1978 | Los Angeles, California

William Grant Still’s career as a composer began with two unrelated events in his early twenties. He was hired to be an arranger for the “father of the “blues,” W. C. Handy. And he left his pre-medical studies at Wilberforce College to study music at Oberlin Conservatory. From then on, Still’s compositional career pulled him in two directions, between lucrative work in the popular sphere arranging for jazz musicians including Handy, Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman, and classical composition. His 150 compositions reflect this careful balancing: he incorporates jazz, blues, and spirituals into traditional classical forms. 

Still’s singular style propelled him through many barriers. He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (the Afro-American Symphony premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931), the first to conduct a major American Orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936), and the first to have an opera produced by a major American company (Troubled Island at the City Opera, New York in 1937). All these firsts earned him the nickname the “Dean of African-American composers.”

Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony reveals his diverse musical influences, from the spirituals sung to him by his grandmother, to the blues of his employer W. C. Handy, and the classical training he received from composers George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. Each movement is titled with both a traditional tempo marking and a single English word that hints at the movement’s mood. And each includes an epigraph: excerpts from four dialect poems by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

The first movement, which Still named “Longing,” opens with a plaintive, bluesy solo English horn. The main melody follows, played first by trumpet with jazzy Harmon mute. Still borrowed this melody from W.C. Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues.” Blues harmonic progressions and swung melodies dominate as the composer expands and develops this melodic idea, in turn treating it sentimentally and march-like.

For the second movement, “Sorrow,” Still adopts the musical idiom of the spiritual. The Dunbar poem Still provides at the top of this movement has an ethos similar to that of a spiritual: expressing Christian faith while communicating the hardship of slavery.

An’ oftentimes I thinks, thinks I,

‘T would be a sweet t’ing des to die,

An go ‘long home

The third movement “Humor” is a bright contrast to the second. It offers the unique opportunity to hear a banjo sitting among a symphony orchestra. In this movement, the main melodic theme neatly fits the rhythm of the line of poetry Still assigned to it: “An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs, On dat mighty reck’nin’ day.” Listen for the countermelody that Still borrows from George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, which had only premiered a few weeks before Still began drafting his symphony. 

The final movement, “Aspiration,” begins with a slow hymn-like section before launching into a lively finale. However, the avoidance of harmonic resolutions throughout and the move from major to minor for the completion of the piece makes this finale sound unresolved though resolute. Its epigraph is from Dunbar’s “Ode to Ethiopia,” a poem about racial pride and hope for a brighter future.


This piece is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, banjo, and strings.