Black History Month Spotlight: William Grant Still

Written by PA Intern Steven Ji. 

William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an African-American composer and conductor. Throughout his lifetime he composed nearly 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, and nine operas. One of his pieces, Festive Overture, was performed last fall by Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

As a child, Still was first drawn into music by listening to his grandmother sing. People soon found him to be a gifted musician. He took violin lessons and taught himself how to play several other instruments, including the clarinet, saxophone, and oboe. Still studied at Oberlin Conservatory before receiving a scholarship to New England Conservatory, both of which are extremely prestigious music schools.

Also known as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” William Grant Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. His first and one of his most famous symphonies, the Afro-American Symphony, was in fact the most widely performed symphony composed by an American for nearly 20 years.

In the classical music industry, Still broke many racial barriers and earned numerous achievements. He was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States, the first to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States, the first to have an opera broadcast on television, the first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South, and many more achievements that contribute greatly to Black history. Even so, during the New York World’s Fair in 1939, he was not permitted to attend the fair because of his race even though one of his compositions, Song of a City, was played continuously during the fair. Despite such discrimination, he continued to fight his way through many adversities, stating that “there is no White music or Black music – there is only music by individual men that is important if it attempts to dignify all men, not just a particular race.”