Serenade for Orchestra

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            Still was a pioneer for African-Americans in “classical” music composition; he was the first American black man in practically everything having to do with conducting and composing for symphony orchestras and opera companies.  The scion of a distinguished family, he was a descendent of the famous 19th century abolitionist, William Still.  While more fortunate members of the family bought their freedom or escaped north, his immediate family was left behind in slavery in the southernmost isolated county in Mississippi (south of Natchez).  He was born in Woodville, Mississippi in 1895 to a remarkable woman, who took him out of that agrarian obscurity to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she went on to teach high school for many decades.  She and his stepfather gave him great encouragement and created an artistic home environment in what were obviously difficult times for folks with their aspirations.  With encouragement and apparently great ambition, he learned the violin, cello, and oboe, and at an early age attended Wilberforce University in Ohio with the goal of becoming a composer—especially for the symphony and opera.  Soon thereafter he enrolled in Oberlin College, and after military service in WWI, he accepted a position with W.C. Handy (composer of The Saint Louis Blues) in New York City.

            His career there blossomed—while not achieving fame as a composer right away, he nevertheless worked at the highest levels of New York musical circles as an arranger.  Radio and musical theatre became his métier, and a veritable Who’s Who of musical luminaries became his associates:  Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, Sophie Tucker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake—the list is impressive and long.  Along the way he studied musical composition, most notably with the important early twentieth-century composer, Edgar Varèse.  Soon a flood of works ensued, and his music ultimately was performed by groups such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the BBC Orchestra, to just name a few.  He left New York in the mid-1930s for Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his life, and began another successful career arranging and composing for the film and television industry, but focusing on “serious” composition.  From then on, a torrent of works ensued:  operas, ballets, symphonic poems, orchestral suites, choral music, songs, and five symphonies.

            Serenade was composed in 1957 for the Great Falls High School in Montana.  Still’s lifelong long immersion in the stunningly diverse styles and demands of American popular music come to the fore here.   That, his remarkable gift for melody, his mastery of orchestration, and skill at creating just the right musical atmosphere all bespeak of a distinguished career in stage, radio, and television.  Serenade is cast into a conventional tripartite form that features the ‘cellos in the opening with woodwinds leading in the more active diversion in the middle, returning to the initial material at the end.  The cantabile beginning is somewhat redolent of Debussy’s “En bateau of the Petite Suite.  But, withal, Still’s gentle work is infused with thoroughly American harmonies and tunes, and is all his own.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2023 William E. Runyan