“Elegy” by: William Grant Still

Written By: Erik Meyer

To celebrate Black History Month, all of the organ voluntaries played during the month of February were written by black composers. Of the works I played, my favorite is probably “Elegy” by William Grant Still – known as “The Dean of Afro-American Music”.

This is the only work Still wrote specifically for the organ (though some of his other pieces have been transcribed for the instrument), and it is a great example of his compositional style – warm romantic timbres, rich harmony, and melodies reminiscent of southern black spirituals.

Still was the first African American composer to have a work performed by a major American orchestra – his “Afro-American” symphony, played by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931 (just ahead of Florence Price, who in 1933 became the first African American woman to have a performance, this time with the Chicago Symphony.) Some sources say that this work was the most performed American symphony until 1950, overshadowing even Aaron Copland’s “Americana” works such as Appalachian Spring or Rodeo (Copland, incidentally, was known as “The Dean of American Composers”). The “Afro-American” Symphony mixes romantic orchestral sounds with blues melodies, no doubt inspired by Still’s association with WC Handy’s band (Handy was known as the “Father of the Blues”).

Though his works were celebrated during his lifetime, it is important to note that racism was rampant in the music industry, and Still was a victim of many injustices. He composed a song for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but wasn’t allowed to attend the exhibition without police escort, except on “Negro Day”. He later moved to Los Angeles to write for films – but most of this music remains uncredited, and he ultimately stopped composing for movies because of discrimination. His second marriage was not legal in California, because it was interracial.

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