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William Grant Still: He dreamed of being a classical music first

William Grant Still was the first African American composer to have an opera performed by a major opera company.
Photo - Public Domain

The history of classical music is filled with names of great composers, symphonic orchestras, opera companies and great conductors who were the first among their peers to become well-known for their classical music endeavors. Many of these artists, entities, and conductors such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, The Metropolitan Opera Company, and Leonard Bernstein, are now household names.

But what do we really know about classical music and some of the many composers who dreamed of being firsts in this genre of music? Can you name the first opera by an African American composer to be performed by a major opera company? Can you name the person who wrote its libretto? The answers to these questions may come as a surprise since many classical music enthusiasts and scholars rarely mention their names or include them in their scholarly essays.

The first opera by an African American composer to be performed by a major opera company is titled The Troubled Island, composed by William Grant Still (1895-1978), with a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey. It was performed by the New York City Opera in 1949! William Grant Still completed the opera in 1939 and when it debuted, it was a stunning success as well as a disappointing failure. The story is set on the isle of Haiti in 1791 and depicts the rise and fall of revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was assassinated after crowning himself Emperor of the newly independent nation. On opening night, the audience gave the opera 22 curtain calls, but many critics were not so kind and their less-than-glowing reviews contributed to is short three- show run.

Today William Grant Still is often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers. The Mississippi-born, Oberlin Conservatory of Music-trained instrumentalist-arranger-composer completed more than 150 musical compositions during his lifetime, including nine operas, five symphonies, chamber music, ballets, and works for piano, voice, band and chorus. In 1936, he became the first African American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra and the first to have an opera, Bayou Legend, performed on national television when it premiered on PBS. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still's works have been performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.

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