Music Monday: Still: Seven Traceries

Sometimes called “The Dean of African American Composers”, William Grant Still (1895–1978) is undoubtedly most famous for his first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony from 1930. That’s a great work, and it’s definitely worth getting to know if you’re not familiar with it, but I think relying on it too heavily to give a snapshot of Still’s output runs the risk of pigeonholing him and limiting our conception of his musical breadth. Still himself was adamant about this [College Music Symposium], insisting that he “wrote as [he] chose, using whatever idiom seemed appropriate to the subject at hand” and “did not bow” to the “complete domination” of Jazz any more than he did to the modernist style he encountered when studying with Edgard Varèse.

Those studies took place at Oberlin Conservatory, where he transferred in 1917 after two years at Wilberforce University, a historically black college also in Ohio. (Still’s mother had wanted him to become a doctor, but music won out in the end.) His time there was interrupted by America’s entry into the First World War, and it’s not clear whether he earned an actual degree after the cessation of hostilities. Degree or no, in 1919 he headed off to New York City to work as an arranger for WC Handy. While there he also performed in a number of Broadway shows and continued to work on his own compositions, many of which were heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, which Still considered himself an active member of. As the Great Depression began to take its toll, Still started doing work as an arranger for various radio shows, and he also started conducting the orchestra for CBS’s “Deep River Hour”. When that show moved to NBC, the studio heads refused to have a black man in that position, and in 1934 Still applied for and won a Guggenheim Fellowship (he would win another in 1935 and a third in 38) and moved out to Los Angeles.

If Still was hoping to make it big in the movie business, that dream didn’t pan out. He had some early work on Lost Horizon and Pennies from Heaven, but in the face of entrenched racism and a dearth of industry contacts work of that sort soon dried up. Even so, Los Angeles would remain his home for the rest of his life, tho he did travel regularly to conduct his works both in the United States and abroad. He died in 1978 after a series of heart attacks and strokes.

Like most of his piano music, the Seven Traceries (1940) were written for his second wife, Verna Arvey. Mystical and elusive, they are, according to Still’s daughter [Naxos Program Notes], attempts to capture seven aspects of God. The first, “Cloud Cradles”, begins with distant, brittle oscillations. Instead of a gentle, soft rocking to sleep, this seems to be a cradle on the cusp of a storm, with unease always lurking just around the corner; there is barely a single interruption in the rocking (or is it lurching?) movement until the final cadence. “Mystic Pool” begins with a languid, plaintive melody that gathers warmth as the accompaniment slowly builds up from its original sparseness. The surface of this pool may seem calm and placid, but some deep mystery is stirring in its depths, as suggested by an ominous low ostinato that makes a brief appearance towards the middle of the movement, heralding the return of the opening melody.

Like many an incident of quiet jollity, “Muted Laughter” is brief, not even a full minute in length. But over its short span it covers quite an arc, sliding down from the upper register to do a kind of chortling dance before bubbling away. “Out of the Silence” seems to hint at a slow Jazz ballad, but strange harmonies keep pushing it off course, until a distant chiming of bells in the piano’s upper reaches emerges like a far-off vision. Another bluesy interlude follows, tho this sunny expanse certainly owes much to the German Romantics as well. It runs aground on a chilly dissonance, but it’s a gentle grounding, and as it retreats in the closing section, it retains some fragmented echoes of that warmth, even if they don’t last to the very end.

“Woven Silver” starts with a few thin ascending strands of single notes, with chords few and far between. Towards the middle, the texture thickens, but the music retains its mercurial lightness and flexibility until it slips away out of sight. The title “Wailing Dawn” might at first make you think of keening ululations, but the penultimate movement deals in more staid sorrow, struggling to move under a great and heavy burden of grief. Having heaved itself up to an early climax, a few florid wisps escape and flutter about in some distress, but the gloom soon return, building to another impassioned outburst before subsiding in exhausted acceptance. To balance that, the work ends with “A Bit of Wit”, a light agile dance that, if not an outright parody, still moves with an easy, lithe grace, little troubled by the sorrows of the world.