|About this Recording
8.559603 - STILL, W.G.: Symphonies Nos. 4, "Autochthonous" and 5, "Western Hemisphere" / Poem (Fort Smith Symphony, Jeter)
William Grant Still (1895–1978)
The life and career of the African-American composer William Grant Still qualifies as the quintessential American “success story”. Often referred to as the “dean of African-American composers”, Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on 11 May 1895, to a family of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch blood. Still’s father, the town bandmaster, died when William was three, precipitating a move to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Still’s mother was a teacher. There, Still had his first musical experience, studying the violin. At his mother’s urging he began medical studies but dropped out as music exerted a stronger pull. Music study at Oberlin was interrupted by naval service in World War I. After the war, Still moved to New York, where he worked as an arranger for several popular performers including W.C. Handy (composer of the immortal St Louis Blues) and Artie Shaw, whose hit, Frenesi, he orchestrated. Still gained immeasurable experience playing the oboe in Broadway pit orchestras while studying composition with the conservative George Chadwick and the ultra-modernist Edgar Varèse. He arrived in New York at the perfect time, actively participating in the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural awakening of African-Americans in the 1920s. His attention turned to classical composition for good in the late 1920s. A move to Los Angeles in 1930 to arrange for Paul Whiteman expanded his horizons into film and radio, initiating his compositional maturity and most prolific period. That same year saw the creation of his Symphony No. 1 ‘Afro-American’, which established and sustained his reputation, remaining his most popular and frequently recorded work.
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Still achieved many ‘firsts’: first to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra (1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro-American); first to conduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic); first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955, New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera produced by a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New York City Opera), and first to have an opera broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend, PBS). Still received many honours including the Guggenheim fellowship, honorary doctorates from Oberlin among others, and the key to his home state in 1975. He died in Los Angeles on 3 December 1978.
Still’s most distinctive works are nationalistic, using African-American forms such as the blues, spirituals, and jazz in addition to other ethnic American musics. After an early flirtation with avant-garde techniques, he returned to a neo-romantic idiom with lyrical melody and traditional harmony. His work retains a freshness with immediate appeal. Still, a deeply religious man, inscribed each of his works to God, “the source of all inspiration”.
The Fifth Symphony was originally the Third Symphony before Still withdrew it. After the creation of the Fourth Symphony, he revised the work as the Fifth Symphony. The composer’s wife Verna Arvey, speaking for him, gave descriptive titles to the symphony’s four movements: 1. “The vigorous, life-sustaining forces of the Hemisphere” (briskly) 2. “The natural beauties of the Hemisphere” (slower, and with utmost grace) 3. “The nervous energy of the Hemisphere” (energetically) 4. “The overshadowing spirit of kindness and justice in the Hemisphere” (moderately). The revised work was given its première by the Oberlin College Orchestra under the direction of Robert Baustian at the celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday on 9 November 1970.
As with many of his works, Still wrote “absolute” music, adding a program after completion. He affixed a prefatory text to the Fifth Symphony expressing his thoughts during its composition:
The first movement immediately presents the main theme, a three-note motive encompassing a minor third. This motive rises up the diminished scale along with a great deal of syncopation, creating a tense, brooding atmosphere. The second theme presented in the woodwinds, more happy and optimistic, tosses a two-note motive over more syncopation. A loud rising scale figure heralds the development of the second theme in the strings, becoming more agitated, and leading to the recap of the main theme in the strings. This builds quickly to a dramatic tutti climax with a tragic, brusque end. The slow movement portrays a tropical atmosphere where Still’s orchestrational skill comes to the fore. An expressive, languorous melody in the violins glides over pulsing marimba chords. The three-note motive of the first movement reappears, adding an element of tension. The coda subsumes the motive into a peaceful ending. The nervous energy of the first movement returns intensified in the angular melodic figures and obsessive march rhythm of the scherzo. A two-note figure is tossed about violently as the movement charges to a bleak end in the minor. Dynamic rhythms and optimistic melodic figures initiate the finale, building to a great climax which slows to reveal an expansive melody in full strings. Sumptuously orchestrated and full of hope, this melody builds in warmth to cap the work in glowing affirmation. Still, a man of peace, expressed through this work the optimistic postwar vision of America freshly empowered as the savior of world freedom, prepared to spread that light to all humanity.
Poem for Orchestra was commissioned by the Kulas American Composers’ Fund for the Cleveland Orchestra at the suggestion of then music director Erich Leinsdorf. The work was first performed in Cleveland with Rudolph Ringwall conducting on 7 and 9 December 1944, later receiving a New York Philharmonic performance under Artur Rodzinski.
The Poem, “one of Still’s key works” in the words of Robert Barlett Haas, is an extensive symphonic poem “inspired by the concept of a world being reborn spiritually after a period of darkness and desolation” in the words of Verna Arvey. The impassioned, angular opening section (a reflection of wartime deprivation) holds sway to the midpoint of the work, growing to a large climactic tutti capped by brass fanfares before collapsing into a glowing string melody representing the “coming to spiritual consciousness”. This “musical climax of hope” (in the words of contemporary reviewers) builds to a radiant ending on a major seventh sonority colored by a minor third.
Regarding the Fourth Symphony, Still remarked: As the subtitle indicates, the Fourth Symphony has its roots in our own soil, but rather than being aboriginal or indigenous, it is intended to represent the spirit of the American people. The composer has described its four movements in this way: 1. Moderately: The spirit of optimism and energy: the American ability to ‘get things done’ 2. Slowly: pensive, then later in the second subject, animated in a folky way 3. With a graceful lilt: humorous and unmistakably typical of our country and its rhythms 4. Slowly and reverently: the warmth and the spiritual side of the American people—their love of mankind. It may also be said that the music speaks of the fusion of musical cultures in North America.
The symphony is dedicated to one of the composer’s early teachers, Maurice Kessler of Oberlin. It was given its première by Victor Alessandro and the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra on 18 March 1951.
The first movement, in sonata form, uses thematic transformation, beginning with a melody in the bass instruments later transformed into the movement’s second theme. The main theme, the idée fixe of the entire work, soon appears in chordal strings, and appears throughout, unifying the work. Legato muted trumpets present the second theme. The slow movement begins with the idée fixe, in the style of a spiritual, in the flute, while the main theme is an oboe solo. The idée fixe reappears in the violins as the tempo increases. When the original tempo returns, the main theme appears in flute and harp, followed by the idée fixe. Luminous strings evaporate at the close. The third movement is a jazz scherzo. Clarinet and bassoon over brushes on drum and suspended cymbal set the stage for the principal theme in flutes and oboe under a walking bassline. The idée fixe appears as a second theme in three flutes. A powerful melancholic theme in the violins begins the finale. It alternates with two episodes, one in faster tempo developing the idée fixe as the second uses a seven-note motive taken from the main theme. The music strides forth as the motive leads to a noble, affirmative peroration combining both themes.
David Ciucevich Jr.
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