Composer of the Week: William Grant Still

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Because composers rule, we’re starting a new tradition of publishing a post honoring a different composer each week. First up is William Grant Still, an African-American composer and Salon97 fan favorite!

b. May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi

d. December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles, California

The first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the U.S. and the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, along with being the first to present an opera with a major opera company, William Grant Still was deemed the “Dean of African-American Composers.”

Academically, William Grant Still was recognized for his musical accomplishments many times over. He was awarded an Honorary Masters of Music degree from Wilberforce College in 1936, an honorary PhD in Music from Howard University in 1941, an honorary PhD in Music from Oberlin in 1947, an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Bates College in 1954, and an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1971.

Still’s music is lush, melodic, and thick with beautiful harmony. A composer dedicated to realizing the American experience in music, Still often used regions as subjects as he did when composing the opera Highway 1 and Pastorela, a tone poem inspired by California.

The programmatic and melodic qualities of Still’s composition style make his music very approachable. Most likely due to the fact that he earned his living writing music for television and radio, many of his classical works sound as though they could be film scores.

Where to start:

-William Grant Still’s most popular work is his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”

Still’s favorite genre in which to compose was opera. His most famous operas at this time are Troubled Island, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, and Highway 1.

The video below is the third movement of Still’s Afro-American Symphony, which harks to ragtime and big band music. Pure awesome.

Here’s an excerpt of the score to Still’s ballet Sahdji:


  1. Congratulations on the excellent choice of William Grant Still as the first composer to be “Composer of the Week!” William Grant Still’s complete Works List has been compiled by Prof. Dominique-RenĂ© de Lerma and is featured in its entirety on the William Grant Still page at
    The Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 of Still were released on Naxos 8.559603 (2009) and are worth hearing along with his earlier symphonies.

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