William Grant Still

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: William Grant Still
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Wailing Woman; Swanee River; And They Lynched Him on a Tree; Miss Sally’s Party; Reverie; Elegy
PERFORMER: William Warfield (narrator), Yolanda Williams (soprano), Hilda Harris (mezzo-soprano); Leigh Morris Chorale, Ensemble Singers, Chorus & Orchestra of the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota/Philip Brunelle
Many applauded the first compilation in Collins’s new survey of Afro-American music, ‘Witness’. Frankly, it didn’t grab me. But I have no hesitation in beating the drum for this non-populist, single-composer disc, which does valuable service.


William Grant Still (1895-1978) gained fame as the first black American composer to have a complete symphony professionally performed: the Afro-American Symphony, premiered in 1931 (by the Rochester PO). Others, like William Dawson under Stokowski, were hot on his trail.

Still’s output was wide, and highly rewarding it is too. Wailing Woman (don’t be put off) rivets you from the start, while the poignant word-setting of And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940) feels like a Guardian newspaper ‘Eyewitness’ column ahead of its time. Searing stuff. By contrast, the laid-back, sleazy cakewalks of Miss Sally’s Party will have you tap-dancing in the aisles.

Still’s idiom is largely diatonic and traditional, albeit jazz-plus-gospel infused. But listen out for some curiously inverted woodwind timbres: Still studied with, amongst others, Varèse.


All the solos are brilliantly focused, the punchy Plymouth woodwind and brass are superb and the choir is heaps crisper than on Vol. 1. Brunelle’s organ fillers seem slightly out of place, his diapasons dour. But for those who relish their Porgy and Bess, Joplin’s Treemonisha (or, for that matter, Kurt Weill) it is a must. Roderic Dunnett