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William Grant Still (1895–1978). Darker America (1924)
Still. Danzas de Panama (1948)

Hi, it’s Kile Smith, and it’s the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. I hope you’re having a good year so far, as we enter February, and thanks for joining our monthly Fleisher Discoveries podcasts. We’re on SoundCloud and Spotify; to get to us just go to Spotify or to SoundCloud, type in Fleisher Discoveries and you’ll have us and all our podcasts!

We don’t always use the Black History Month designation of February to play music by Black composers, but this year we will, as we hear two pieces by William Grant Still. After all, on our first Fleisher Discoveries podcast we played Florence Price, and that was a December podcast. We’ve already heard from Ulysses Kay on a November show, and then on the radio version of Fleisher Discoveries, this very same William Grant Still on another November airing, among others.

But it’s good to have a special time to remember the treasure of African American composers—and Black composers from around the world—and so it’s to William Grant Still today, and to begin with, one of his first orchestral works, Darker America, and from a quarter-century later, his Danzas de Panama.

The triumphs of William Grant Still are many, and so as not to miss his important firsts in music history, I need to read this remarkable list:

  • Still was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States.
  • He was the first to direct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South (that was in New Orleans).
  • He was the first to conduct an American network radio orchestra.
  • He was the first to have an opera produced by a major American company.
  • He was the first African American to have an opera televised over a national network in the U.S.

Of William Grant Still’s more than 200 compositions are five symphonies, four ballets, many art songs, chamber works, choral works, and nine operas, including Troubled Island, with a libretto mostly by the great Langston Hughes.

His connections were so wide he’s hard to pin down as a composer. He worked with W. C. Handy, Fletcher Henderson, Eubie Blake, Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, and Artie Shaw. He studied with the ultra-Romantic George Chadwick and the ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse. He wrote and arranged for CBS and NBC radio. In Hollywood he arranged for Bing Crosby in Pennies from Heaven; he arranged for Dmitri Tiomkin, also. His works were played by the great orchestras of New York, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, London, Los Angeles, and others, Howard Hanson’s Rochester Philharmonic, and he was commissioned by the American Accordionists’ Association.

It’s interesting to see George Chadwick’s name pop up here, because that reminds me of another Fleisher Discoveries, in fact, that first podcast I mentioned before. William Grant Still, after studies at Wilberforce University, the first private historically black college, and at the Oberlin Conservatory, was in Boston playing oboe in Eubie Blake’s musical Shuffle Along, noted as the first black musical to play in white theaters. Still decided to contact Chadwick, who was running the New England Conservatory. Chadwick accepted him as a student, and you may remember from our first podcast that Chadwick had also earlier taught Florence Price, so hats off to George Chadwick and the New England Conservatory.

In New York City playing, arranging, and composing, Still then studied with Varèse as I mentioned, and it was at this time that he wrote Darker America. Listen for the three themes, which the composer calls “the theme of the American Negro,” that’s in the strings, then the “sorrow” theme in the English horn, and then in the brass, the “hope” theme. After developing these, Still combines them for what he calls “a triumph for the people.” It’s a blues and jazz and modernist classical tone poem for symphony orchestra. It would be performed by Howard Hanson’s Rochester Philharmonic and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the same ensemble that premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and it would go on to be performed around the world.

Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra in William Grant Still’s Darker America.

[William Grant Still (1895–1978). Darker America (1924)]

Darker America by William Grant Still. In this live recording, the American Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Leon Botstein. This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, and I’m Kile Smith.

William Grant Still composed Darker America in 1924, and if we move ahead another 24 years to 1948 we come to our next work, Danzas de Panama. Actually, Still composed it a year earlier for string quartet, and then worked it up to this string orchestra version, although it didn’t receive its official premiere until 1955 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

But where did Still find the tunes that make up these Panamanian dances? For that, we have to thank Elisabeth Waldo, an American violinist who toured Latin America in the ’40s and ’50s, lived in Mexico City for a while, and was something of an ethnomusicologist. She popularized many tunes she heard throughout South and Central America, even releasing LPs with her arrangements during the exotica music craze, as it was then called, in the 1960s.

So William Grant Still credited Elisabeth Waldo for finding these four melodies from Panama. In most of Latin American music, the sources are either Indian, Spanish, Black, or some mixture of the three, and in Danzas de Panama, the first and last have Black origins, and the middle two are a mix of Spanish and Indian. The dances are Tamborito, Mejorana y Socovon, Punto, and finally, Cumbia y Congo.

The Danzas de Panama for string orchestra by William Grant Still. Isaiah Jackson conducts the strings of the Berliner Symphoniker.

[William Grant Still. Danzas de Panama (1948)]

Danzas de Panama, from 1948, by William Grant Still. The strings of the Berliner Symphoniker were conducted by Isaiah Jackson. So happy to spend a little time with the music of William Grant Still on Fleisher Discoveries.

Last month you’ll remember we aired the Louis Gesensway Four Squares of Philadelphia, and if you missed it, you can always go to SoundCloud or Spotify and still hear it! Anyway, a member of the Gesensway family wrote me after she heard the podcast and said, “That was the best, most concise presentation and description I have ever heard—both about the composer and the music. Thank you so much.” Well, thank you, Ellie, that’s a huge compliment, and I appreciate that. We’re happy to be doing this.

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I want to thank you for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We’re on Spotify and SoundCloud and we come to you every month with a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.