Happy 125th Birthday to William Grant Still!

[William Grant Still, half-length portrait, facing front]. 1925. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Mississippi-born composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) holds a significant place in the history of American music, and May 11, 2020 is his 125th birthday! He embodied so many firsts for African Americans in classical music while battling racism. He was the first African American composer to have a work performed by a major American orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic, 1931) and to have an opera performed by a major company (Troubled Island, 1949). William Grant Still was also the first African American conductor of an American symphony (Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1936) and of an all-white radio orchestra (Deep River Hour, 1932). You can get a sense of Still’s vast musical output by browsing the publications managed by his estate at William Grant Still Music (link here) – symphonies, operas, ballets, art songs, arrangements of spirituals, and more. You can also read about William Grant Still’s significant musical contribution to the 1939 New York World’s Fair here.

To celebrate William Grant Still’s 125th birthday, I want to make sure that our In the Muse readers know about the valuable primary sources in the Music Division’s holdings to study this composer. The Music Division holds original compositions in Still’s hand (“holograph scores”), facsimiles of other holograph compositions by Still, holograph and facsimile arrangements by Still of others’ compositions, and correspondence. 

Let’s start with a fun fact: did you know that the Music Division holds two different versions of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, Afro-American Symphony? Each score was donated to the Music Division by a different source. William Grant Still’s music publisher J. Fischer and Bro. donated an undated holograph score on November 22, 1935. The score’s cover reads, “This, the revised version . . . supersedes the two preceding versions.” Interestingly, the holograph score donated by American pianist and music journalist Irving Schwerké (1893-1975) in March 1966 is one of the preceding versions. This score also includes a copy of a typescript letter from William Grant Still dedicating this symphony to Schwerké. If your curiosity takes over as to where the other “preceding version” is, I refer you to the finding aid of the William Grant Still and Verna Arvey Papers at the University of Arkansas (link here). But, don’t miss a facsimile in our holdings of Still’s 1969 revision!

William Grant Still dedicated a second early and significant work to Schwerké, which Schwerké also donated to the Music Division in March 1966. The second holograph score is Africa, a symphonic suite Still completed in 1930. How is it that Schwerké had two holograph scores dedicated to him by Still? Learn about Still and Schwerké’s friendship in this e-book chapter (here) provided by the California Digital Library from William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions (e-book here). The chapter’s author Wayne Shirley, a former Music Reference Specialist here, refers to the Irving Schwerké Collection in the Music Division, which is unprocessed, but you can view the collection-level catalog record here. The article includes transcriptions of many letters between the two friends.

The Music Division also owns other holograph scores of William Grant Still’s orchestral works: a circa 1941 holograph lead sheet of the orchestral suite From the Black Belt (1926), a full score of the symphonic poem Old California (1941), and a lead sheet for March-Finale (1942; call number ML96.S915 Case) for chorus and orchestra. We also own facsimile scores of Symphony No. 4 (call number M1001.S835 no. 4) and the symphonic poem Wood Notes (1947).

Carl Van Vechten, photographer. [Portrait of William Grant Still]. March 12, 1949. Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

William Grant Still composed eight operas, and the Music Division is lucky to own holograph scores for the first two: Blue Steel (call number ML96.S915 Case) and Troubled Island. Blue Steel was completed in 1934, the year that Still moved to Los Angeles from New York City where he played and arranged for W.C. Handy (1873-1958). Still adapted a story by Carlton Moss, which was written as a libretto by Bruce Forsyth. Still’s second opera, Troubled Island, was completed in 1937 and premiered by the predecessor company of the New York City Opera on March 31, 1949. The librettist was none other than the great Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes (1902-1967). To learn more about the historical context and production history of the opera Troubled Island, I recommend reading this book published by William Grant Still’s estate, Just Tell the Story.

If you’re interested in William Grant Still’s ballet music, the Music Division holds facsimile piano-vocal scores for the first version (call number ML96.5.S82 Case) and revised version (call number ML96.5.S82 1961 Case) of Sahdji, as well a facsimile piano score for La Guiablesse (call number ML96.5.S82 Case). For holograph scores of keyboard works, the Music Division holds Fanfare for American War Heroes for piano (1943; call number ML96.S915 Case) and Reverie for organ (1961). 

And, don’t forget about William Grant Still’s letters in our special collections! William Grant Still is a correspondent in the Louis Kaufman Collection, Modern Music Archives, Artur Rodzinski Collection, and Irving Schwerké Collection.

While I haven’t written an exhaustive listing, I hope that this birthday blog post has piqued your interest about the many research possibilities in the Music Division about William Grant Still. Let’s collectively wish this musical giant a happy 125th birthday!

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