Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

Symphony No. 1, Afro-American

Still’s Symphony No. 1, Afro-American, is considered the first symphony by a Black American composer to be performed by an established orchestra.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on May 11, 1895, and died in Los Angeles, California, on December 3, 1978. His Symphony No. 1, Afro-American, dates from 1930. The first performance was given by the Rochester Philharmonic, Howard Hanson conducting, on October 29, 1931—making it the first symphony by an African American composer to be performed by a significant American orchestra. These are the first performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of the complete work.

The score of Still’s Afro-American Symphony calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, triangle, wire brush, small cymbal, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, woodblock, orchestra bells, gong, harp, celesta, tenor banjo, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 25 minutes long.

Although sympathetic contemporaries referred to William Grant Still as “the dean of African American composers,” his response to the moniker reputedly took the form of a question well taken: “Why, then, isn’t Aaron Copland called the ‘Dean of White Composers’?” Still’s ambivalence about the label was entirely characteristic of the man, even as it also reflected the politics of self-identification African Americans of his generation were obliged to embrace amid segregation. Raised in a deeply religious, upwardly mobile household in Little Rock, Arkansas—then a comparatively welcoming setting for African American families—Still appears to have been shielded from the worst of Jim Crow, and as a young man he looked up to figures from historian-civil rights activist-author W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” leadership group, composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in particular. Uniquely, given Still’s future trajectory, much of his apprenticeship was spent gaining hands-on experience in the popular music industry—not only composing, but also performing and arranging. An early stint with the legendary bluesman W.C. Handy was to prove especially formative, and it was thanks to the connections Still forged with him that he later became musical director of the first Black-owned record label, the New York-based Black Swan Records. The list of musicians for whom Still worked in this and related capacities during the 1920s reads like a veritable who’s who of early jazz legends: among others, Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Florence Mills, and Ethel Waters. Yet since so much of this activity took the form of uncredited arranging and other sorts of behind-the-scenes labor, Still has never really gotten the recognition he deserves for shaping the popular soundscape of the era.

All the while, Still somehow found the time to take lessons with the French expatriate composer Edgard Varèse, perhaps the leading representative of the “ultramodernist” wing of 1920s concert music. Although Still fast distanced himself from Varèse’s style, the elder man’s enthusiastic imprimatur helped open a number of doors, and soon white tastemakers were lauding him as one of the most promising of young classical composers, even as some of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance—including its intellectual mastermind, Alain Locke—saw in him a viable path forward for “great black art.” All of this made Still a distinctive boundary-crossing figure, yet it came at a price: as he further concentrated his energies in the symphonic-operatic sphere, colleagues took it for granted that his music would not only reflect a distinctively African American ethos, but that it would do so by drawing on the musical genres stereotypically associated with the latter. While Still seems initially to have found this unproblematic, as the 1930s and 1940s wore on, he grew increasingly disenchanted with such expectations, which he found at once limiting and condescending. He simply wanted due acknowledgement as a freethinking “American original,” regardless of skin color. Instead, the racialized logics that have long structured musical life in the United States made such acknowledgement impossible—a circumstance exacerbated, admittedly, by his later insistence that a Communist conspiracy had sprung up to undermine his career. Given that he was the first to break through any number of racial barriers, Still is sometimes thought of as something like “the Jackie Robinson of American art music” (to borrow a phrase coined, and critiqued, by musicologist Gayle Murchison). Yet what is clear is that to reduce Still to this description is to sell short both the richness of his artistic vision and the complexity of his politics.

One of just a handful of symphonies by U.S. composers (of whatever ethnicity) with a toehold in today’s repertoire, Still’s Afro-American dates from 1930, the middle of what he later referred to as his avowedly “racial” period. Recognized as the first symphony by an African American composer to be performed by a professional orchestra, it has been Still’s calling card since the day it was unveiled. Discussing his career prior to 1930, Carol Oja writes that “Still led a dual existence, part of which involved treading the same path as young white concert composers of his day and part of which kept him in step with his own people.” One way of understanding the Afro-American, then, is as a disclosure of, and effort at overcoming, this sense of double consciousness, as Du Bois might have referred to it. In this, the score registered some of the values of self-determination and race pride associated with the Harlem Renaissance figure of the “New Negro.” And yet, as was so typical of Still, the Afro-American also goes its own way, offering an explicit narrative of racial uplift in a vein much more closely tied to the older, Du Bois generation of Black thought.

The Afro-American is in effect a “blues symphony,” permeated from start to finish by the spirit of the idioms Still absorbed via Handy. Given Black intellectuals’ equivocal attitudes at the time toward jazz and other forms of vernacular music, writing such a work was a freighted gesture indeed. In a sketchbook, Still mused:

I harbor no delusions as to the triviality of the Blues, the secular folk music of the American Negro, despite their lowly origin and the homely sentiment of their texts. The pathos of their melodic content bespeaks the anguish of human hearts and belies the banality of their lyrics. What is more, they, unlike many Spirituals, do not exhibit the influence of Caucasian music.

These words can be interpreted two ways. Addressed to Still’s white colleagues, they seem to be playing along with their assumption that his symphony could not but disclose his racial identity. If so, then, the more “authentically” Black its sonic DNA, the better: thus his appeal to the blues. But Still’s lines would have struck his African American contemporaries quite differently. For them, Still had to justify his use of musical material indelibly associated with the violent repression of the post-Reconstruction era, and with the image of the rural, pre-Great Migration “Old Negro.”

The irony is that although the score’s sonorities were very much those of Black Swan’s “city blues” (muted brass, brushed snare drum, string smears), the score appeals to tropes of geographical distance and travel more closely associated with the “rural blues.” One way Still achieves this is by prefacing each movement with an epigraph by the African American poet-novelist-playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar, only the last of which is not in regional dialect. They read so:

[I. Moderato assai.] All my life long twell de night has pas’ / Let de wo’k come ez it will, / So dat I fin’ you, my honey, at last’, / Somewhaih des ovah de hill.
[II. Adagio.] It’s moughty tiahsome layin’ ’roun’ / Dis sorrer-laden earfly groun’, / An’ oftentimes I thinks, thinks I / ’Twould be a sweet t’ing des to die / An’ go ’long home.
[III. Animato.] An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs, / On dat mighty reck’nin’ day.
[IV. Lento, con risoluzione.] Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul. / Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll / In characters of fire. / High mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky / Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly, / And truth shall lift them higher.

Following a brief English horn invocation, the first movement, “Longing,” begins with muted trumpet languidly outlining a textbook blues theme in call-and-response with horns and woodwinds; the theme’s melodic essence will pervade the entire symphony. After two more blues strophes—the first clarinet-led, the second with energetic strings—a “sentimental”-style subsidiary theme begins to introduce some of the “sweetening” touches Still absorbed as a jazz arranger (e.g., the glint of the vibraphone). Though the rest of “Longing” gestures loosely at standard first-movement sonata form, the music is better understood through the prism of Dunbar’s yearning for that place “ovah de hill”—a yearning it will be the rest of the symphony’s task to address. “Sorrow,” the slow movement, is more placid—an effect achieved, at least in part, by the use of an invariant tonal center (highly unusual for symphonic movements, but par for the course for blues forms). Its sadness—that desire to “go ’long home”—is expressed with a degree of emotional reserve in keeping with the blues as a “coping mechanism” or “system of explanation” for social injustice.

Scored with Still’s most dazzling élan, “Humor,” the propulsive scherzo, directly invokes the commercial traditions on which he first cut his teeth. (Note the twang of the banjo, a standard sonority on very early jazz recordings.) Much has been made of the scherzo’s “quotation” of George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” from his musical Girl Crazy, which was first performed as Still was drafting the symphony. Still expert Catherine Parsons Smith has demonstrated that it was long a favorite melodic shape of the composer’s, and since the two men ran in some of the same circles, it is almost certain Gershwin was familiar with it before “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Whether Gershwin consciously plagiarized the tune, it scarcely seems possible that Still’s timing could have been coincidental. In conjunction with the epigraph’s invocation of a “mighty reck’nin’ day,” this has led some to speculate about encoded meanings in the movement. Smith, for one, hears Still playing “the role of Trickster,” with the scherzo an example of how he “used the ‘minstrel mask’ to reflect his sense of racial doubleness.”

The stately “Sincerity” ends the symphony with a deeply felt spiritual, albeit one syncretized with blues elements from earlier movements. Only retrospectively, and in genuinely symphonic manner, do the score’s intentions come into full view, since for Locke and Du Bois alike, the spirituals alone offered an affirmative basis for African American music-making. Rather than pour blues materials into prefabricated symphonic molds—a misunderstanding that has led white critics to complain of Still’s “structural failings”—it is clear that the Afro-American aspires to find its own forms, by tracing an arc straight from the blues to the spirituals. In this, Still furnishes a quintessential narrative of racial uplift, one that, musicologist Annegret Fauser aptly suggests, rethinks the Beethovenian symphonic trajectory of per aspera ad astra (“through hardships to the heavens”). It is deeply significant that only the last of the Dunbar epigraphs is not in dialect: “Sincerity” does not so much leave the “Old Negro” behind as transvaluate her by means of a “truth [that] shall lift them higher.” Literary scholars have sometimes pointed to the years around 1930—and specifically, African American writers’ renewed embrace of dialect—as having marked the end of the Harlem Renaissance. Surely Still’s symphony deserves credit, too, for preserving the progressive ideals of the “New Negro” with the blues-based yearnings for that place “ovah de hill”—yearnings that, as he discovered through Handy, were no less sincerely meant than the strains of the spirituals.

Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist, critic, and annotator who was the 2014 Tanglewood Music Center Publications Fellow. He was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.

Prior to the BSO’s Youth Concert performances of the first movement under Thomas Wilkins in March and April 2018, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops performed the paired first movement and scherzo from Still’s Afro-American Symphony in June 1937 and June 1938, and the scherzo by itself in June 1944, after which Dean Dixon led the Boston Pops in the scherzo in June 1945, and Chelsea Tipton II led the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra in the scherzo in June 2004.