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William Grant Still:
The Afro-American Symphony


William Grant Still wanted to put the sound of the blues into a symphony. His Afro-American Symphony is centered on a bluesy theme. Still took that theme and did something entirely different with it in each of the Symphony's four movements.

The Music of Freedom
The songs that helped the slaves escape to the north, as well as others that celebrate freedom.

Music heard in this episode:
William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony

Other shows about William Grant Still:
About William Grant Still
Paul Lawrence Dunbar's Poetry
Black Composers of Classical Music

Download this month's activity sheet



About William Grant Still
5/11/1895 - 12/3/1978
Born in America

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two school teachers. But when he was very little, William's father died, so he and his mother went to live with her mother in Little Rock, Arkansas.

William grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. And he also grew up hearing her sing spirituals that she learned as a child. Later on, those stories and spirituals found their way into his music.

When William was nine, his mother remarried. His stepfather loved music, too. He bought a phonograph, with which he introduced William to all kinds of music he'd never heard before, including opera. William took violin lessons when he was young, and then taught himself to play the cello, clarinet, oboe and French horn.

Still went to Wilberforce University in Ohio to study medicine, but that didn't last long. Still began his music career in Columbus, Ohio. Then, the great blues performer W.C. Handy invited him to come to Memphis play with his band, and to do musical arrangements for them. That's when the blues started finding their way into Still's compositions.

William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. And he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. But Still earned his living writing background music for radio and television -- shows like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and The Three Stooges. In addition to symphonies, Still's classical compositions include chamber music, operas, and ballets.

See other composers born in America

 

This Week's Quiz:

1. In music, the word BLUES means

changing certain pitches in a scale

writing on blue paper

sad music


2.Each movement in the Afro-American Symphony is based on the same theme.

true

false


3. The third movement of the Afro-American Symphony uses what unusual orchestral instrument?

guitar

banjo

ukelele

sitar



 

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