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History of Wilberforce University: William Still

William Grant Still, 1895-1978

William Grant Still

William Still playing the piano

Biography

Major Accomplishments

  • First African American composer to have a major orchestra play one of his compositions
  • Composed five symphonies and eight operas

William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi. After his father passed away when he as a baby, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Still enrolled at Wilberforce University in 1911. After, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and New England Conservatory of Music. In 1931, Still became the first African American to have a major orchestra play one of his compositions when the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed Afro-American Symphony. In 1936 Still became the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Many of Still's compositions melded jazz with traditional orchestral music. Some reflected his interest in African music. A number of his ballets and operas reflect his interest in the African diaspora. His 1930 ballet, Sahdji takes place in central Africa. His acclaimed 1937 ballet, Lenox Avenue, is set in Harlem. His 1949 opera, Troubled Island is about the Haitian Slave Uprising.

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