William Grant Still was born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and died December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles, California. He completed his Threnody (In Memory of Jan Sibelius)—as the title is printed on the score, using an Americanization of the Francophone (Jean) version of the Sibelius’s given name Johan—in Los Angeles in January 1965. The piece was commissioned by Dr. Fabien Sevitzky for the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Sevitzky led that ensemble in the work’s first performances on March 14 and 15, 1965, in Miami, marking the centennial of the Sibelius’s birth. These are the first BSO performances of the piece.
The score for the Threnody calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, snare drum), harp, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses).
Although well-meaning contemporaries frequently referred to William Grant Still as “the Dean of African American composers,” his response to the moniker reputedly took the form of a pointed question: “Why, then, isn’t Aaron Copland called the ‘Dean of White Composers’?” Still’s ambivalence about the label was very much characteristic of the man, even as it also reflected the politics of self-identification African Americans of his generation were often obliged to embrace amid segregation.
Raised in a deeply religious, upwardly mobile household in Little Rock, Arkansas, Still was shielded from some, though by no means all, of the worst of Jim Crow. As a young man, he looked up to figures from the so-called “Talented Tenth,” whose political leadership and cultural achievements, black intellectuals of the era believed, would facilitate the “uplift” of all African Americans. Even at an early age, however, Still went his own way, since much of his earliest compositional experience came from apprenticing in the popular music industry, which was then held in low repute by the black intelligentsia. A stint with the legendary bluesman W.C. Handy was particularly formative, and it was thanks to the connections Still forged with Handy that he later became musical director of the first black-owned record label, the New York-based Black Swan Records, in 1921. The list of musicians for whom Still worked in this and related capacities during the 1920s reads like a virtual who’s who of early jazz legends: Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, and Paul Whiteman, among others. Since much of this activity took the guise of uncredited arranging and other forms of behind-the-scenes labor, though, Still has never really gotten the credit he deserves for helping to shape the popular soundscape of the era.
During the same period, Still began taking lessons with the French expatriate composer Edgard Varèse, perhaps the leading exponent of “ultramodernism” in 1920s concert music. Although Still fast distanced himself from Varèse’s idiom, the elder man’s enthusiastic imprimatur helped open a number of doors, and soon enough, white tastemakers were lauding Still as one of the most promising of young classical composers. Almost concurrently, some of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance had begun to cast Still as a torchbearer for the “great black art” that was to be the movement’s keystone. All of this made Still a distinctive boundary-crossing figure, and yet it came at a price: as he concentrated his energies more and more in the symphonic and operatic spheres, audiences took it for granted that his music would not just reflect a distinctively African American ethos, but that it would do so by drawing on the style features and expressive tropes stereotypically associated with black music. While Still initially found this assumption unproblematic, as the 1930s and 1940s wore on, he grew increasingly disenchanted with such expectations, which he came to find limiting and condescending. He simply wanted due recognition as a freethinking “American original,” without undue reference to skin color. By some measures he achieved that recognition. His music was performed frequently by orchestras across the country during his lifetime, and he was recognized with honorary doctorates from institutions from Bates College in Maine and Boston’s New England Conservatory to the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University.
One of Still’s final scores, the compact Threnody (In Memory of Jan Sibelius) can be understood as an example of Still’s rejection of musical “color lines” and his consequent embrace of what he called a “universal idiom.” Written to mark the centenary of Sibelius’s birth, it was requested by the conductor Fabien Sevitzky, a Russian-born American conductor who, coincidentally, was the nephew of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. A faculty member of the University of Miami, Sevitzky had already led the premieres of several of Still’s works there, including the composer’s opera Highway 1, U.S.A.
In paying homage to Sibelius, the Threnody memorializes a figure whose music, though shaped decisively by his own Finnish identity, had itself attained the status of something like a “universal idiom” by 1965 (if popularity on global concert stages is any metric). Moreover, it is hard to underestimate Sibelius’s significance for an American composer of Still’s generation: during the 1920s, when Still was discovering his musical voice, Sibelius’s scores were in considerable vogue in the English-speaking world. Hailed as the long-awaited successors to Beethoven’s symphonies, Sibelius’s essays in the form were viewed by many as outstanding achievements with which any young composer would need to come to grips.
Yet the Threnody’s doleful cast suggests a deeper sense of identification with Sibelius, who, much like Still in his later years, stood stubbornly aloof from all trends and “isms.” With its note of tender lament, its gentle melodic syncopations, and its occasional “bluesy” harmonic inflections, the Threnody recalls the character of some of Still’s scores from the 1920s and early 1930s, which had drawn explicitly upon the tradition of the African American spirituals. Perhaps Still felt that, on this occasion, the most appropriate homage would be to revisit aspects of the style of his best-known work, the Afro-American Symphony. After all, on encountering the Afro-American, Sibelius reportedly declared, “He has something to say”—high praise indeed from the otherwise taciturn Finn.
Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. He is a graduate of Harvard University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Mr. Mendez was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.