Saturday, February 14, 2015

African Composers

With Things Fall Apart now in our rear-view mirrors and Beloved directly ahead, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss a topic that is unfortunately underrepresented: African composers. Given, Africans did not have such early access to Western musical instruments and styles, but even so they have no dearth in creative inspiration. In specific, William Grant Still was born in Mississippi in 1895. While his father had died when Still was a baby, his step-father nurtured his affinity for music. By age 16, according to Wikipedia, he had taught himself the clarinet, bass, cello, viola, saxophone, and oboe. Some would called that musically gifted, and the word savant would also probably be thrown in somewhere. The case being such, he attended college and then an orchestral conservatory. Still has been dubbed "the Dean" of African-American composers, for he was one of the (if not the) first African American composer, and the first to have a symphony of his (the one of which I've included an excerpt), and composed an astounding 150 scores in his life. The excerpt I've included is most identifiable by its reliance on horns rathern than strings, and the blues-esque rhythms therein. These characteristics are a testament to Still's own musical and cultural identity influencing the conservatory teachings he had learned. The triumphant themes (most notably to me around 2:00 and 4:00) with intermittent measures of melancholy indicate to me the potential Still sees in his fell African-Americans that is continuously hampered by societal impressions regarding their race. The overall tone, though, indicates to me that Still believes that African-Americans as a whole would persevere through adversity to achieve success. Here's the first movement of William Grant Still's first symphony, the "African-American Symphony." Enjoy!

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