William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an American composer, arranger, and conductor known for his contributions to the classical music genre. He was the first African American to conduct a symphony orchestra in the United States. He was widely recognized for his pioneering role blending elements of traditional African American music with classical forms.
Still composed over 150 works during his lifetime, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, and numerous chamber pieces. He also arranged music for films and radio broadcasts and actively advocated racial equality in the arts.
Some of his notable works include the "Afro-American Symphony," "Suite for Violin and Piano," and "From the Black Belt," among others. He was also the recipient of several awards and honors throughout his career, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club.
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An Article from the Feb 1964 Issue of Ebony Magazine recounts Grant Stills's career and discusses his finances. Despite the success of his career and his fame during his life, he did not make a lot of money and discussed the “sacrifice” that his career was.
● “Spirituals are just as universal as any other form of music.”
● His professional career began by playing violin, viola, cello, and oboe in orchestras.
● There are only two things: this work and this work as a means of improving race relations.”
● Composed over 100 works, including ballets, six operas, five symphonies, and solo vocal music setting spirituals and poems
● First black man to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra
● First black man to conduct a white radio orchestra (Deep River Hour, 1932)
● First black man to conduct a symphony orchestra in the United States (Los Angeles PO, 1936)
● First black man to have an opera produced by a major company
● Honorary doctorates from many schools like Oberlin College, Wilberforce University, Howard University, Bates College, the University of Arkansas, Pepperdine University, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and the University of Southern California.
● In 1976, his home in Los Angeles was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument
● Received three Guggenheim Fellowships in music composition (1934, 1935, 1938)
In the 1920s, William Grant Still’s mother wanted him to become a doctor, so he studied science at Wilberforce University. He did conduct bands and dabble in composition at Wilberforce, but before long, he transferred to Oberlin.