William Grant Still, William Dawson

On the first Saturday of the month (but on the 2nd Saturday this month because of last week’s fund drive), Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM. You can hear us in the Philadelphia area or online at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

William Grant Still (1895-1978). Kaintuck’ (1935). Richard Fields, piano, Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, Jindong Cai. Centaur 2331
William Dawson (1899-1990). Negro Folk Symphony (1934/52). Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi. Chandos 9226

Throughout their entire lives they fought prejudice and shortsightedness, but William Grant Still and William Dawson succeeded in breaking into the classical world more than most African-American composers of the 20th century. The term “African-American music” is as misleading as “American music,” since there are as many different kinds of music as there are composers. It may be helpful, though, to recognize two broad groups: those who use African-American folk material and those who do not.

William Grant Still

William Grant Still

William Grant Still is in the second category. As his name became more widely known—and after his time studying with Varèse—he sought to write entirely original music. Still didn’t want to be known primarily as a “black” composer, but as a composer. He concluded—as Amy Beach had earlier, for women—that a composer of any minority had to compete on the same playing field to be considered legitimate, even if the playing field was not level.

And compete he did. Of his many accomplishments, Still was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major company, and the first to conduct a major orchestra. He composed, taught, authored books, and arranged for W.C. Handy, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, and many others.

He first sketched Kaintuck’ on a train ride from Cincinnati to Louisville, and it is a naturalistic piece describing the landscape. The classical repertoire brims with works like this, from Mendelssohn to Debussy back to Beethoven and before. The prominent piano part allows Kaintuck’ to bubble over with friendliness.

Dawson, Stokowski, 1963

Dawson, Stokowski, 1963

William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony exemplifies the first group, but Dawson had yet another battle as well. Not only did he face racial discrimination, but he was also known purely as a choral composer (anyone who’s ever sung in a high school choir knows his arrangements for the Tuskegee Institute Choir), and it took some doing to get this symphony off the ground. But he went to the top, showing the score to Leopold Stokowski, who premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934.

He populated the symphony with the spirituals he knew so well. Although Dawson tells the story of the African-American struggle through the movements “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O Le’ Me Shine,” he trusted that it could also be heard as pure music. Like Still’s music, it is awash in the American symphonic sound of the 1930s. Dawson and Still did break through into the classical world, and as we listen to some of this ravishing music by these prodigiously gifted men, it may occur to us to ask why they haven’t succeeded even more.

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