by Woody Faulkner, Music Director
On Sunday Feb. 25, the Chancel Choir will sing the anthem “All That I Am” by noted African-American composer William Grant Still. I first encountered the music of Maestro Still in the 1980’s when the Greensboro Symphony performed the choral ballad, “And They Lynched Him On a Tree” in collaboration with several area college, university, and civic choirs, one in which I sang. It was one of the first times that the GSO symphony had performed a large scale work that included a significant number of African-American singers and musicians. It was a milestone in the GSO music scene.
It was this very moving and memorable experience that inspired me to explore the music of Maestro Still further. Below is a short biography of Mr. Still and his wife Verna Arvey. His daughter, Judith Anne Still, has preserved his legacy as the director and owner of William Grant Still Music located in Arizona. I was privileged to speak with her on the phone some years ago whereupon she related to me the discrimination that her father endured by being rejected by major USA symphony orchestras for most of his career.
William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an American composer, who composed more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas.
Often referred to as “the Dean” of African-American composers, Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known most for his first symphony, which was until the 1950s the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.
Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse.
Of note, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his 1st Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.
Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent Afro-American literary and cultural figures such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, William Grant Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
Verna Arvey (February 16, 1910 – November 22, 1987) was an American librettist, pianist and writer who is best known for her musical collaborations with her husband William Grant Still, a musician and composer.