Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”

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            Still was a pioneer for African-Americans in “classical” music composition; he was the first 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 immediately 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.

            His first symphony, subtitled “Afro-American,” was composed in 1930 and was the first symphony composed by a Black man and performed by a major American orchestra (in this case, the Rochester Philharmonic).   Notwithstanding his study with Varèse, and the deep influence of the famously avant-garde composer upon on him, the symphony is a rather conservative work, cast in a tonal, accessible idiom.  He indicated that his intent was to reflect untutored musical characteristics of Black “sons of the soil,” hence the blues and spiritual (but not jazz) elements that thoroughly inform the work.  Each of the four movements is associated with excerpts from poems by the important Black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, cast in dialect.   These inform the moods of each of the movements, and respectively are entitled, “Twell de Night Is Pas,”  “ W’en I Gits Home,” “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” and “Ode to Ethiopia.” 

            The first movement contains strong allusions to the well-known twelve-bar blues structure, while the second is infused with intimations of Black spirituals, reflecting the metaphor of “going home” for death as an escape from the realities of difficult times.  The third movement is animated (as most third movements are in a symphony), and in this case admirably reflects a sermon about “An’ we’ll shout ouag halleluyahs, On dat mighty reck’nin’ day.”  Finally, the last movement is a noble and dignified evocation of the text: “Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul . . .”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2019 William E. Runyan