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William Grant Still (1895-1978)
In Memoriam (1943) [7:22]
Africa (Symphonic Poem) (1930) [27:51]
Symphony No. 1 Afro-American (1930) [24:57]
Fort Smith Orchestra/John Jeter
rec. Arkansas Best Corporation Performing Arts Center, Fort Smith, Arkansas, 28-29 Feb 2004
NAXOS 8.559174 [60:09]


 

I am going to stick my neck out. I truly believe that William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony is one of the finest cross-over pieces of music ever written. I rate it above An American in Paris and the legendary Rhapsody in Blue. And coming the other way (from ‘classical’ to ‘jazz’) I find it more satisfying than Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto or Darius Milhaud’s Création du Monde. All four of these works are high on my list of personal favourites. I have known them for most of my adult life and recognise just how good they are. Yet listening to Still’s Symphony I feel that I have discovered something very beautiful, interesting, and attractive; in fact the adjectives run out. I must confess that until this CD dropped onto the doormat, I had never heard it before. I knew it existed for I have seen the Chandos recording (CHAN 9154) in the shop many times. However it never came my way. I listened to this work twice – just in case I have been seduced into thinking it is more enjoyable than it is. But no – my original contention remains the same.

A few words about the composer are not without interest, as I doubt he is a household name in European musical circles.

William Grant Still has a number of claims to fame. His present symphony was the first written by an African-American to be performed by a major symphony orchestra. He was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. He was the first to have an opera performed by a national company. He was the first to have an opera performed on television – albeit posthumously. And his catalogue of more than 150 works make him a prolific composer.

The composer was born of a mixed race union. Irish, Scots, Negro, Indian and Spanish blood ran through his veins. His father, who was the local town bandsman, died when Still was only three months old. Most of his early life was spent in Little Rock, Arkansas. Initially he was destined to become a doctor but was increasingly drawn towards music. It was not until after a period of active service in the Navy during the First World War that Still was able to resume his musical education at Oberlin College. However he abandoned college and headed for the ‘Big Apple.’ There he spent time learning the musical trade – arranging material for W.C. Handy. He became involved in the re-awakening of Negro culture in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ and soon became adept in the world of jazz and popular music. However it was his studies with two very different but equally great composers that set him on the route to becoming the ‘dean’ of American music. Edgard Varese was an avant-garde composer well versed in the latest techniques from Europe. George Whitefield Chadwick was a conservative composer of great skill and melodic invention. It is out of these two teachers that Still forged his unique style - a synthesis of his African-American heritage and the prevailing classical traditions.

The present CD gives three of William Grant Still’s works. The Afro-American Symphony has been recorded and performed a number of times. At the moment there are at least five versions available on CD, including the Chandos recording by Neeme Järvi. However Naxos has performed a sterling service by giving us two première recordings of the In Memoriam and the Africa (Symphonic Poem).

The In Memoriam: The Colored soldiers who died for democracy (1943) was commissioned by the League of Composers during the Second World War with the intention of generating works with a patriotic theme. The piece has a strange beauty. We are conscious of the slow movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Yet this work is entirely Still’s own. It is simple, but in that simplicity there is great depth. The work is quite restrained and does not ‘tub thump’ in any way. Of course there is great irony in the title of the work. At that time in America many blacks were denied the political and social rights and freedoms that they were laying down their lives in far-flung places to protect. The Alabama riots and the flourishing of the Civil Rights movement were still twenty years away.

The symphonic poem Africa is an impressive piece. It was conceived as a part of a trilogy of works celebrating the cultural roots and heritage of African Americans. Still began composing this work in 1924. It was originally written for chamber orchestra but was revised into its present form in 1930. The background is as a presentation of Africa as a place imagined as opposed to described. The programme notes compare this work to some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic musical portraits of far-flung lands. There is no evidence to suggest that Still actually visited the African continent. The work, which is almost symphonic in structure, is in three contrasting movements. The first explores the pastoral and spiritual side of the continent as a Land of Peace. The second movement, The Land of Romance, concentrates on the sadness generated by the longing of slaves for their homeland. Finally, the last movement explores the ‘unspoken fears and lurking terrors’ in the Land of Superstition.

This music is actually quite difficult to describe. I do not really like to say that it reminds me of composers ‘x’ or ‘y’ – but if pushed I would have to say that Delius (Florida and Appalachia) was called to mind on more than one occasion.

There is no doubt that Still’s masterwork among those few we have heard is the Symphony No.1 ‘Afro-American’. This was premièred by the redoubtable Howard Hanson in 1930 to great critical acclaim. It quickly established itself as one of the key works of the era receiving some thirty-four performances in the 1930s alone. It is best described in the composer’s own words: ‘I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.’ And this is certainly the net result of this work. In many ways it is actually quite hard to draw a line between the ‘blues’ and the ‘classical’. And of course this work is a testament to the skill of the composer in marrying two contrasting styles of music.

However Still was not content just to utilise the blues. Each of the first three movements makes use of different ‘black’ musical traditions. The first, subtitled ‘Longing’ is the blues-oriented movement. Dvořák never seems far away in this nostalgic music. The second movement, ‘Sorrow,’ utilises the mood of the Negro spiritual. The heady combination of sorrow and oppression and confidence that the Lord will provide salvation is present in every bar. The third movement, ‘Humor,’ is jazz-based – and not only jazz. Ragtime makes a brief appearance as does the first known use of a banjo in the symphonic literature. Watch out for a tune that is remarkably like Gershwin’s ‘I got Rhythm.’ But please note that this was written some years before the ‘original’! The final movement is a coming together of various themes and threads from the preceding movements. It is entitled ‘Aspiration’. Here is a new voice speaking a new language for the American people. Yet the sentiments were as old as the transportation of the slaves themselves.

This is a great CD. The playing impressed me greatly. The Fort Smith Orchestra under John Jeter obviously have a great sympathy for this music. I can only hope that Naxos will issue a number of Still’s other works. I would ask them to consider Levee Land, the 3rd Symphony (Sunday Symphony) and the charmingly entitled work – The Little Song that Wanted to be a Symphony.

John France



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