William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony
Tue, 29 Aug 2017

The 20th-century brought more changes to the symphony. One major movement that developed is known as neoclassicism. This term refers to the attempt to reach back to older musical forms from the Baroque and Classical periods as a reaction to the dramatic, emotional compositions created during the Romantic period. Many composers used chamber ensembles to perform their symphonies (similar in size to those used during the early classical period) rather than orchestras of 200 musicians. Some used elements including counterpoint and fugue in their work, combining it with modern ideas of tonality. Stravinsky and Hindemith are examples of neo-classical composers.

Still other composers expanded on symphonic ideas by adding quotations from other popular tunes (Ives), simplifying and repeating rhythms through minimalism (Glass), using newly-invented electronic instruments (Messiaen) amongst many other new techniques.

Today I would like to take a closer look at one 20th-century symphony written by William Grant Still: his Afro-American Symphony. Living during a time when African-Americans were excluded from the classical music world, Still made great strides by becoming the first African-American to conduct a symphony orchestra in the U.S. as well as the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company. His symphonic writing incorporated many American idioms within the European symphonic design (four-movements). Several of the uniquely American characteristics Still incorporates include jazz elements and plantation spiritual references.

Listen here to Stillís Afro-American Symphony. Can you hear these distinctly American elements? 


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