Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance: Exploring William Grant Still's 'Afro-American Symphony'

Oct 25, 2018

William Grant Still is best known today for his Afro-American Symphony. Still composed the work in 1930 and strove in the symphony to – in his words – "portray the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits of their African forebears."

To that end, Still infused his Afro-American Symphony with melodies redolent of the sounds of blues and African-American spirituals.

Still's Afro-American Symphony came after two other significant works in which Still also gave voice to the African-American experience, but in a different way.

Still composed those two works, Darker America and Levee Land, in the 1920s and in a musical language that attempted a blend of sounds drawn from blues and spirituals with the more dissonant style of his modernist peers – composers like Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell and Still's mentor, French arch-modernist Edgard Varèse.

For instance, in this passage near the end of Still's Darker America, harsh harmonies dress up a blues in style and form:

And the dissonant introduction of Levee Land’s first song melts into a bluesy tune:

According to musicologist Carol Oja, in the 1920s Still and other African-American artists felt a tension between creating distinctly African-American work and abandoning that dimension in favor of other artistic priorities.

It was during those years that Still opted to compose music that embraced and expressed his African-American background in more direct ways.

For his Afro-American Symphony, Still abandoned the modernistic language of Darker America and Levee Land in favor of a style in which characteristics of blues and spirituals were not hidden beneath angular dissonances but instead shone forth with singular clarity.