Often referred to as the Dean of Afro–American music, Still was the first African–American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra (he led the LA Philharmonic in 1936), the first to have a symphony of his own performed by a major American orchestra (his Symphony No.1, Afro American
, was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Howard Hanson in 1931), the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (Troubled Island
was given by the New York City Opera in 1949), and the first to have an opera performed on national television.
Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it was here that he started violin lessons when 14 years old. He also taught himself the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and displayed a great interest in music, which was aided by his stepfather buying him RCA records of classical music. Still once said “I didn't study piano. I think I am much better off for it actually because I have always been greatly interested in instrumentation and wanted to study it.” (interview with Still by Jim Standifer in 1974 http://www.umich.edu/~afroammu/standifer/still.html
). It is probably his orchestral music which is best known to most people.
He was the arranger for W.C. Handy’s band, and orchestrated Harlem stride pianist James P Johnson’s Yamekraw
for piano and orchestra - which Johnson saw as a complement to Rhapsody in Blue
. In the 1930s he worked as an arranger for a couple of popular radio shows and went to Hollywood where he worked in the film business. He studied at Wilberforce University, and later with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. With this real melting pot of influences behind him it’s no wonder that his music is quite easy to listen to and has many points of reference for the listener.
The three pieces on this disk are well worth investigating. The Poem for Orchestra
starts in a most uncompromising way, making one think that this is not going to be an easy ride. It soon settles down and, in places, could almost be one of Howard Hanson’s outdoor pieces. The 4th Symphony
is full of homespun Americana, and not a little Gershwin in the first movement, which gives way to a beautiful slow movement, gentle and flowing. The “scherzo” is an easy-going piece, in the manner of Morton Gould’s Pavan
(from his 2nd Symphonette
). The finale starts with a tune which is very reminiscent of the great theme from Howard Hanson’s 2nd Symphony
, but this soon goes and the long fast section is well built.
The later 5th Symphony
is very similar in outlook. But it is less derivative, having a stronger personality, harder-edged themes, and is rather more interestingly scored.
These are delightful works but there are two important things which must be borne in mind. First of all, much of the writing is derivative of other American composers, especially Gershwin and Hanson. Secondly, neither work is a Symphony: the material and working out isn’t strong enough to sustain a work on such a scale. That said, these pieces are well worth investigating, for they show a sidelight on American music which has gone relatively unheard over the years.
The recording is bright and clear, the performances are excellent, and the notes are good. This is indeed a bargain.
see also reviews by Nick
Barnard and Rob