If you’re a fan of classical music and American history, Symphony No. 5 “Western Hemisphere” by William Grant Still serves as an excellent starting point for studying America’s unique cultural footprint. Contained within its four movements are a heroic but soulful three-note melody, which graces its way across a plethora of musical textures before finally arriving at a glorious finale. Indeed, with its gospel-inspired theme and colorful orchestration reminiscent of a misty morning sunrise over the Appalachians, the “Western Hemisphere” symphony is a work that never ceases to remind the average American of where they were born. This composition is one of many that exemplifies America’s cultural standard for creativity. Indeed, what we know as “American” music would likely not have existed had it not been for the famed yet underappreciated composer, William Grant Still.
Before the influential styles of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, William Grant Still was cleverly designing the framework by which certain kinds of music would be conceived as “American”. Prior to Still, the idea of a uniquely “American” sound seemed a bizarre concept to most listeners. In addition to being heavily overshadowed by European composers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the sound of American composers was almost entirely influenced by already-existing styles. This is not to say that the United States did not produce excellent composers during this era. Composers such as Francis Hopkinson (b. 1737-1791) who uncoincidentally was a signer of the Declaration of Independence wrote masterful pieces of music that stand as trademarks of American culture (his piece, The Toast, a brief but ingenious composition dedicated to President George Washington, is worth at least a few listens). However, despite the obvious identity of Hopkinson as a proud American, his style was understandably similar to the European classical composers of his time, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At that point in history, it seemed that the unique stylistic qualities of American music had not yet been discovered.
The evolution of music in the United States came to an important cross-road when American society confronted its most heinous institution: slavery. It is a well-documented fact within musicological circles that the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States gave birth to an immense paradigm shift in popular culture. The industries most affected by this were the musical arts. Since Spiritual music played an integral role in providing enslaved people in the South with hope, these same communities brought those musical skill sets to the performance industry upon their emancipation–sparking the creation of new genres such as ragtime and gospel music. The use of Western tonality mixed with African rhythms passed down from many generations led to the birth of various musical styles–meaning that American music came to be defined as a “creole” forged by the clashing of simultaneously opposing yet cooperative cultural influences during the Reconstruction Era.
Three decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, William Grant Still was born in 1895. Raised during the tail-end of Reconstruction, Still’s life can be viewed as a bridge between the culturally divisive era following the Civil War and the widespread pop music industry of the early 1900’s. Still’s uncle frequently brought classical music records to the young boy’s house when he visited–inadvertently facilitating Still’s love for the symphony orchestra. When he was a young man, Still began studying science at Wilberforce University, but soon transferred to Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he focused on composition. Soon after his studies, Still spent the early days of his career writing for W.C. Handy and Fletcher Henderson. But his identity as a classical composer wouldn’t be cemented until the premiere of his first major orchestral work: Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.
The title of this work spoke volumes about Still’s personal values and beliefs. In the era that Still’s first symphony was published, the words “African” and “American” seemed diametrically opposed in the minds of many individuals–both for those who wanted to perpetuate racist beliefs and for those who were its victims. Yet, for Still, it was never quite that simple. As stated by the famed composer himself:
“For me, there is no White or Black music, there is only music by individual men that is important if it attempts to dignify all men, not just a particular race.” *
Based on his own words, it seems as though Still’s personal values about how racial identity should not take precedence over artistry would not bode well in today’s society where tribalism and identity politics reign supreme. Because of his staunch dedication to a universal, post-racial identity, one could say that William Grant Still proved himself to be a great American in addition to being a great composer.
Appropriately enough, Still’s subtle, yet profound Americanism shines through in many of his later compositions. Take his work, Summerland originally written as part of a suite for solo piano. This piece, reminiscent of a sunny day in the great American countryside, offers a pleasant detour from Still’s artistic reflections on America’s cultural identity and explores the natural beauty of the nation itself. Venturing over dramatic phrases and colorful harmonies, Summerland has more in common with Lili Boulanger’s piano works than that of commonly compared-to George Gershwin.
William Grant Still’s honorable artistic homage to the complexities of American identity paved the way for future composers of the American tradition. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s Rodeo, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings all owe a degree of their artistic integrity to the foundation put forth by Still. In the same way a sociology student must study Tocqueville to understand American society, or a philosophy student must study Edmund Burke to discover the theoretical underpinnings of American politics, there is no greater composer for the study of American musician than William Grant Still. If given the chance, one should immediately listen to the fifth symphony “Western Hemisphere”. Few compositions have paid greater respect to the exceptional values of Western Civilization than Still’s masterpiece of a symphony.
*This quote was first documented in Judith Anne Still’s collection of biographical essays on her father. Still, Judith Anne. William Grant Still: A Voice High-Sounding. The Master-Player Library, 2003
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The featured image is a photograph of William Grant Still taken on March 12, 1949 by Carl Van Vechten, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.