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Black History Month: One Incredible Journey

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Still’s Symphony No.1, Thursday in the 9 o’clock hour

Thursday, Oct. 30, 1930:

“Start working on Afro-American Symphony. Things look dark. I pray for strength that I may do just as God would have me. Would that I ever did anything to displease Him, I believe that He will straighten out conditions. I must not lose Faith—I must not complain.”

The darkness to which 35-year-old composer William Grant Still referred was not just about life in the Great Depression; his was an intergenerational struggle for human dignity. His maternal grandmother, Anne Fambro, had been a slave in the shadows of the place where Georgians voted to secede in 1861. Fambro could only watch as the army of General William Tecumsah Sherman looted and scorched through town on his drive to the sea three years later. In 1872 Fambro gave birth to daughter Carrie; nothing is known of Carrie’s father, except he was likely of European descent. Carrie married and had William in 1895. Other relatives have been lost from history, which was typical for freed people who had been routinely separated from family during the slave era. Sadly William was still an infant when his father died, so he and his mother went to live with Anne Fambro.

In the face of such adversity, both Anne Fambro and her daughter Carrie were determined to improve their lives, especially for young William. Carrie, who had graduated from Atlanta University in 1886, was an educator. When she went to work at a school with no library, Carrie organized a benefit to establish one. She saw to it that William had music lessons; everything from spirituals to opera recordings were heard in the home. William was valedictorian of his high school in 1911. Following his mother’s wishes, he went to Wilberforce University to study medicine, but his musical calling won out. He began working as an oboe player and soon caught the eye of W.C. Handy. With Handy, William Grant Still’s career as an arranger took off. At the height of segregation, Still would go on to compose and work with some of the most celebrated musicians of his day, including Eubie Blake, Paul Whiteman, Edgar Varese, and Artie Shaw. Still’s music would be performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York City Opera. It was Howard Hanson of the Eastman School of Music who conducted the first performance of Still’s Symphony No.1, Afro-American. Hanson took the piece with him for performances in Berlin, Stuttgart and Leipzig.

On Thursday morning during the 9 o’clock hour, hear a symphony with a uniquely American voice: the Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still. Carl Grapentine will play a recording with Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta.

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