Black in the Day…An Afro American Symphony
October 28, 1931:
On this day, William Grant Still’s work became the first of its kind by a Black person to be performed by a major symphony orchestra.
William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an American composer of more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas. Often referred to as “the Dean” of African-American composers, Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known most for his first symphony, the “Afro-American”, which was until the 1950s the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.
Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse. Of note, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his 1st Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent Afro-American literary and cultural figures such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, William Grant Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement.