About this Recording
8.559210 - STILL: Piano Music
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William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Piano Music

Long known as the doyen of Afro-American composers, William Grant Still was born on 11th May, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi to musical and scholarly parents of African-American, Native American, Spanish, Irish, and Scotch heritage. Following the death of Still’s father when William was only a few months old, the family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the young Still began his musical education with violin lessons from a private teacher and a stack of Red Seal opera recordings bought for him by his stepfather.

Still attended Wilberforce University, spending his time there conducting the band and learning to play the various instruments in it, as he made his first attempts to compose and orchestrate. His subsequent studies at Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at first through his father’s legacy, and later through a scholarship established just for him by the faculty. After graduating, he began his professional career playing in orchestras and orchestrating music, particularly for the violin, cello, and oboe. Some of the legendary musicians he worked with include Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, and Sophie Tucker, and for several years, he arranged and conducted the Deep River Hour on CBS and WOR radio.

Later study included a period at the New England Conservatory of Music and an individual scholarship with the ultra-modern composer Edgard Varèse. In the 1920s Still made his first appearances as a serious composer, receiving Guggenheim and Rosenwald Fellowships, and several important commissions including CBS, the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, Paul Whiteman, the League of Composers, and the Cleveland Orchestra. Other honours included the jubilee Prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1944), the Freedoms Foundation Award (1953), and a prize from the U.S. Committee for the United Nations, the N.F.M.C., and the Aeolian Music Fund for his orchestral work The Peaceful Land, cited as the best musical composition honouring the United Nations (1961).

Still received countless honorary degrees from several prestigious universities, including Howard University, Oberlin College, Pepperdine University, and Peabody Conservatory. In addition, he was awarded numerous trophies and citations from organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians, the National Association of Negro Musicians, the Phi Beta Sigma George Washington Carver Award, the Richard Henry Lee Patriotism Award, and a citation from the governor of Arkansas. He also lectured at various universities from time to time, and was a distinguished member of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Among his many distinctions, Still was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States (the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936), the first Afro-American to conduct a White radio orchestra in New York City, the first Afro-American to have an operatic work produced by a major company in the United States (Troubled Island at the City Center of New York in 1949), and the first person of Colour to have an opera televised over a national network. He wrote over 150 compositions, including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of folk themes, as well as instrumental, choral, and solo vocal works.

The compositions for piano on this recording are, truly, visions of life; more specifically, they are visions of African-American life and history. Through these visions, the composer depicts the positive nature and progress of a courageous people, from the African cradle of civilization, to a glorious future in the afterlife.

In Africa, the dark-skinned peoples are seen as the first humans, having begun to evolve three million years ago. They thrive in a place of peace and romance because they have a close relationship with the Divine. After millions of years, they are taken into slavery and sent to other locales, until the Civil War ends their physical bondage. Amid the ruins of A Deserted Plantation, where once they toiled in chains, they face their new freedom with thanks to the Creator, and with a joyful ability to dance, to sing, and to find love in the face of hardship.

During the century following the Civil War, the African-American people struggle to gain respect for their talents, meeting adversity with a mixture of sadness, longing and bravery that is the essence of The Blues. Their affection for God and for Creation helps them in their struggle, and they see God as a gentle but exacting power in their lives, whose nature has seven distinct characteristics. These characteristics are only faintly visible to human kind - they are, in fact, seen only in nature as Seven Traceries. The spiritual person of Colour understands these “traceries,” or traces, of God’s influence, and, as always, this awareness of divinity is best expressed through his music.

Ultimately, their intimate relationship with the Creator leads Afro-Americans to understand, not only life on earth, but also life after death. William Grant Still’s Three Visions are the composer’s explanation of what happens to individuals, regardless of skin colour, when their time on earth is over. All are judged. Noble persons, who achieve in spite of obstacles and bigotry, find blessings and advancement in the realm of the spirit. The end of this recording, then, brings the proud, accomplished person of colour to a reward and to a vindication, and it brings the listener to a final vision of triumph, magnificently developed and presented by America’s peerless creative talent, Afro-American composer William Grant Still.

Three Visions is a suite for piano written by Still for his wife, Verna Arvey, who first played the composition in Los Angeles in 1936. The three segments of the suite, Dark Horsemen, Summerland, and Radiant Pinnacle, tell the story of the human soul after death: the body expires, and the soul goes on to an apocalyptic judgment. If it is seen that the past life has been a good one, the soul may enter “heaven,” or “Summerland”. After a period of time, the soul may reincarnate to learn additional earthly lessons on the human plane. Some souls reincarnate many times in a constant circular progress toward Godly perfection.

The seven tone poems in the suite Seven Traceries, Cloud Cradles, Mystic Pool, Muted Laughter, Out of the Silence, Woven Silver, Wailing Dawn, and A Bit of Wit, are mystical in both sound and intent. According to the composer’s daughter, they are actually seven musical portraits of God; they present to the hearer the “seven faces” of Divinity. The composer describes the various attributes of the Higher Power in terms of the natural landscape. In clouds, in pools, and in the rising sun, God is portrayed as a nurturer, as a teacher, as a humorist, as a stern commander, as a dazzling beauty, as an enthroned glory, and as a lighthearted onlooker. In all of these descriptions, William Grant Still’s deep reverence for the pictorial as well as for the spiritual is the cord that binds the seven little tone pictures together into a haunting and profound landscape.

The Blues is a segment from the Still-Arvey ballet, Lenox Avenue, which was first heard on CBS Radio on 23rd May, 1937. This is gut-deep music, impelled by the hard-hitting rhythms and rolling-bass of New York’s Harlem in the 1920s. It is, perhaps, Still’s most memorable rendering of the Negro idiom.

A Deserted Plantation was written by Still for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Whiteman gave the first performance it in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on 15th December, 1933. The work was accompanied by excerpts from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem The Deserted Plantation. The version of the suite which is included on this recording is the piano part from the orchestral score. The beauty of this music when played on the piano is that it retains the colour and sonorous texture of the original.

The present piano reduction of Still’s larger orchestral work Africa was made by Verna Arvey, the composer’s wife. The original version for orchestra was composed when Still was partially under the influence of his teacher, Edgard Varèse. The composition was first played in 1930 (in a reduced form) by the Barrère Little Symphony in New York. Later in 1930, the complete version was presented in Rochester, New York, at an American Composers’ Concert. The composer dismantled the piece years afterward, using parts of it in other works.

Judith Anne Still © 2004

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