Still Going Strong: An Interview with Judith Anne Still
William Grant Still, one of America’s most important composers, transcended the world of music, being lauded by Leopold Stokowski as “one of America’s great citizens,” and by Howard Hanson as “forthright, direct, and without artifice.” The same may be said of his music, which is at once unpretentious and profound. Despite having studied with Varèse, Still opted for a path whereby his music would communicate with the greater number of concertgoers rather than the arcane path traversed by relatively few. Along with Ives and one or two others, Still’s influence upon the music of this country in the first decades of the 20th century was as profound as that of anyone, and so it was with particular pleasure that I was able to discuss this composer and his music via e-mail with his daughter, Judith Anne Still, in May of 2013.
Q: Your father was certainly a seminal figure in American music. What do you think was his most important contribution to our American culture?
A: My father’s most important contribution to culture was in his ability to bring the races together through his music—to instill respect and awe in people averse to the idea. This is what is needed to obliterate hatred along racial lines. Had WGS been allowed to get his music published and recorded properly, he could have done much to end the residual ugliness of the slavery era, but in those times, his enemies prevailed. That is why I am here—to take up the fight by publishing his music and to do what I can to see that it is widely appreciated. My father and Abe Lincoln were in effect a team—Lincoln ended slavery, and my father worked tirelessly towards the further goal of obliterating the myths of slaveholding.
Q: He was also noted for being the “first” in numerous areas: the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra, the first to have a symphony played by a major orchestra, and the first to have an opera staged at a major American opera house. Are there some additional “firsts” that he achieved that are less well known?
A: Actually, my father was the first in about 22 historic areas. One lesser known one is his ballet
—it was the first ballet to use choral elements as an integral part of the plot, and is a groundbreaking work to be sure. But there are many other ways in which he was a path-breaker: He was the first classical musician of color to be invited to the White House, the first to conduct on national radio, the first to have an opera televised, and many other things. He also invented fingernail pizzicato.
Q: Which American composers and musicians do you think your father had particular influence on?
A: My father easily influenced hundreds of composers, especially Gershwin who freely “borrowed” his music in the early 1920s—there is an entire passage from
, which my father composed in 1926, to be found in
Porgy and Bess
. But many other composers, famous and obscure, got ideas from him. Copland, for instance, began putting voices into ballets, and folk tunes in orchestral music after he heard WGS doing it.
Q: What was it like growing up in a household steeped in classical music in an era where African-Americans were linked almost exclusively to jazz?
A: Ours was a normal household—very productive and full of music, with each family member doing his or her “work.” I was planning to be the great American writer, but that didn’t work out. I never heard any jazz in our house, and no one in our circle talked about jazz. Our friends were of all colors and very educated, so I assure you there was no popular music in my life.
Q: Your father, of course, also had a lot of experience and influence in the jazz and musical theater worlds, yet I’ve seen few recordings of his contributions in those genres. Is this something that should also be promoted?
A: I don’t think that he wanted to be noted for his work in popular music, although he and James Johnson did invent dances like the Charleston, and WGS did arrangements for people like Irving Berlin. Actually he arranged literally thousands of pieces in the early days, and he really set the standard for radio music in radio’s early days with techniques that have been adopted and mimicked ever since.
Q: William Grant Still was apparently quite a devout man, and I am curious as to how his faith worked itself out in his music.
A: Yes, my father was devout. In Harlem he was part of the old time religion, but when he came to “occult” California, and discovered Theosophy and Metaphysics, he moved into broader ideas. For example,
is his idea of what life after death is like, and
Mother and Child
is an expression of the “God is Love” idea, with God as the progenitor of human beings.
expresses the forces and emotions that comprise the fatherhood of the Creator. The controlling concept in all of his music is that all creative output comes from God—human beings create nothing valuable that is really separate from the particulates of the Higher Power. Sometimes WGS was even given the themes of his pieces while sleeping, and occasionally entire pages of a score—his dreams and visions guided him because he knew that he had a great work to do.
Q: One source I read stated that a good 50 of your father’s earliest works are lost. How did that come to happen?
A: Yes, actually hundreds of his pieces are now lost, mostly because he threw them out, they were taken by other composers, or he left them in New York when he moved west. His autobiography,
My Life, My Words,
covers this topic quite thoroughly.
Q: The charming story of
The Little Song that Wanted to be a Symphony
was written by your mother. Was this work her idea, or your father’s? Did he have a soft spot in his heart for children generally? What other projects did they collaborate on?
A: WGS loved children, and he always wanted to write for children. He got the idea to finally do it when his opera,
was crushed by political, racist, or jealous adversaries. He decided that he would write for children because they are the future, and they are born without prejudice. After 1934, my parents collaborated on most things that needed words—operas, articles, lyrics, etc. We have published seven volumes of their writings, his and hers, and those done collaboratively, and the librettos of all of his operas are published also.
Q: Are there any of your father’s works that have yet to receive a good performance or recording?
A: Four of his operas have yet to be premiered, and
has had only a single performance, in 1949, so there is much to be done on the operatic front. Some enterprising opera company should do one of the works that inspired
sometime instead of just sticking with that warhorse.
Q: You’ve been quite a champion of your father’s music, much like Imogen Holst was for her father. Have you had assistance from other family members or friends in this endeavor?
A: Most of my kids are working for William Grant Still Music, especially my daughter, Lisa, who will inherit the music business when I am gone. She is the editor of the books, and does many other things to assist, working the hardest of my three children. When we started we were getting only 15 performances of my father’s music each year, and there were no widely available recordings. Now we are seeing about 40,000 presentations of the music or some discussion of the life of the composer each year, and there are now about 100 recordings, including some issued by other companies than our own. Some of these have been allowed to go out of print, in spite of the demand. It’s annoying.
Q: I’m very gratified to hear about this increasing recognition of your father’s worth, and that he is gradually assuming the place of renown in American music that he deserves. Which of your father’s works do you feel are most representative of his art?
A: The finest of the WGS works are two of the symphonies, and
, and his opera,
. But other works are much-loved, such as
Mother and Child, Summerland,
The leader of the pack in instrumental music currently is his Suite for Violin and Piano.
Q: How do you think William Grant Still will be primarily remembered 100 years from now?
A: In perhaps 100 years, WGS will be known as the finest American composer, and worldwide he will stand with the BBMs. I mean Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart! Absolutely.
If anyone is interested in how my father’s career was sabotaged by the “important” people in American music, he or she can read our book,
Just Tell the Story: Troubled Island.
Q: Well, I’m sure that your father would be pleased and gratified by your efforts on his behalf. His legacy obviously went beyond his musical compositions all the way to his flesh and blood “creations”!
The Little Song that Wanted to be a Symphony
Howard Hanson, cond; Ann Yervanian (narr, mez); Barbara Morris (sop); Candace Wilson (sop); Eastman-Rochester SO
MASTER-PLAYER LIBRARY (24:03
Text and Translation)
Little Folk Suites
1-6. Suite for Violin & Piano.
Four Moods. Fantasy
Caen Thomason-Redus (fl); Tami C. Lee Hughes (vn); Dorthy Okpebholo (va); Michael Jorgensen (vn); Victor Sotelo (vc); Everett N. Jones III (pn)
WILLIAM GRANT STILL 4001 (61:93)
The music of William Grant Still has been a part of American culture ever since he composed it, and has been known and admired by music lovers for several generations now. It has deservedly remained in the repertory of orchestras and solo performers, but a number of his works have languished in relative obscurity, and are just now coming into the awareness of the musical public, thanks to championing of his music by Naxos and other labels, and especially through the efforts of his daughter, Judith Anne Still. I’m delighted that this should be the case, given the uniformly high standard set in every work that I’ve heard by this American master. Two of the three works of Still on these two CDs are new and very welcome discoveries for me, and I am delighted to make their acquaintance.
The Little Song that Wanted to be a Symphony,
based on a story by Verna Arvey (who was Still’s second wife), is a work written especially for children. It is scored for narrator, women’s trio, and orchestra, and the story involves a little four-note song who seeks to find himself, as it were, after being rejected by a Big Melody who was part of a symphony. His travels take him to visit an Indian boy, an Oriental girl, some Latin American children, etc. The message of the story is to impress upon children the noble goal of human understanding, particularly in regard to other cultures.
Still’s music is charming and underscores the narrative brilliantly, with rich harmonies and evocative orchestration. The narration is clear and articulate, and the kind of voice that will appeal to young and old alike, and the three singers (one of whom doubles as the narrator) also perform with most pleasing vocal production. Surely this work could be substituted for the ubiquitous
Peter and the Wolf
now and then, being approximately the same length. The recording derives from a live performance (the audience is quiet) of May 2, 1968, where the composer and librettist were in attendance. The included book contains the text and pictures complementing the action, and will be perfect for a young child to follow along while listening to the piece. This CD/book is easily obtainable, along with a host of other recordings and scores of Still’s music, from williamgrantstillmusic.com.
The second CD combines works of Still with Clifford Julstrom, about whom more below. Still’s set of six
Little Folk Suites from the Western Hemisphere
dates from 1968. Each suite is cast in two movements, and each draws from folk melodies from various cultures and countries of the Americas including, Martinique, Native America, Brazil, Mexico, Creole Louisiana, and early California. The pieces, all scored for string quartet, are much simpler in their textures and harmonies than much of Still’s music, but are captivating and charming in their direct appeal. Still was a master of many styles of music, and these works demonstrate a facet of his craft that was previously unknown to me. These pieces might be considered an American equivalent of Bartók’s
Romanian Folk Dances
. Performances are serviceable, but I’m afraid no better than that. But don’t let that stop you from acquiring this CD, as this music should be heard.
The one work on the recital that I’d previously heard is the second movement of Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, one of the composer’s more popular works (it has appeared in a complete recording, for instance, on a New World CD). The work, with its ingratiating melodies and lush harmonies, is simply gorgeous from beginning to end. Here again the recording is not as good as it might be, and not up to the standard set, for example, by Louis Kaufman on an earlier release by this same label.
Clifford Julstrom, whose music is new to me, was a pupil of Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and founded the Western Illinois University Symphony. His output comprises some 90 works, and judging by the two works on this CD (not a lot, mind you, on which to judge someone who has written 90 works), he wrote according to the same musical aesthetic as that of his renowned teachers. His musical style also fits in well with the Still works on this CD, although it is a bit less immediate in its appeal. Although the performers are the same as in the Still, for some reason I find their playing in these two works more appealing. Curious. Part of the difference might be a different recording venue, because the sound on these pieces is also slightly better than that on the Still recordings.
for string quartet begins with a movement that is a soul mate to the string quartet of Samuel Barber. Some of the figuration is quite similar, although I hasten to add that Julstrom is not just re-writing the Barber work. Besides, there is nothing in it like the
for Strings that became its most famous movement. The program notes state that the second movement,
, is a “bit happier” than the first movement, but not to my ears. It is, rather, wistful and nostalgic, to my mind not at all the same emotion as happiness. But never mind that—the movement is appealing, as is the entire quartet. Likewise, the
for flute, string quartet, and piano is an ingratiating work, full of shifting meter, tempos, and harmonies. My personal prejudice aside (I prefer single-composer CDs), I would have gladly foregone the Julstrom works to get more music by Still, who is perhaps our greatest unsung American composer, even though more and more people are beginning to sing his praises. Do pick up both CDs and both treat yourself
support a worthwhile organization devoted to promoting Still’s and other worthwhile composers’ music.
David DeBoor Canfield