Current Research Twelve Years after the William Grant Still Centennial

By Murchison, Gayle | Black Music Research Journal, Spring-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Current Research Twelve Years after the William Grant Still Centennial


Murchison, Gayle, Black Music Research Journal


In 1995, the world celebrated William Grant Still's centennial. The centennial of a composer's birth date or death date offers an opportunity for retrospection. Customarily, numerous concerts devoted to the honored composer are slated, bringing his or her works before a new audience for that calendar year. A centennial also offers an opportunity for new assessment as scholars appraise past research and outline new areas of inquiry. Consider, for example, the number of performances, recordings, and publications in 1985 for the tercentenary anniversaries of Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach (Williams 1985). The magical centenary number provided similar results for William Grant Still. The one-hundredth anniversary of his birth stimulated a burst of scholarship and performances as scholars, performers, and conductors began to interpret and reinterpret various aspects of his life and music. Since the centennial twelve years ago, there has been a renaissance in Still studies. The purpose of this article is to provide a bibliography of this new scholarship and a selected discography to serve as a bibliographic tool, a reference guide of articles, books, recordings, dissertations, and master's theses that have appeared since 1995.

Reference Works

The scholarship generated by the Still centennial promised to document further Still's life, critique his musical compositions, and suggest areas in which further studies are needed. Still has long been included in important biographical dictionaries on music in general and on African-American music specifically. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Smith 2000a) includes the most up-to-date article on Still's biography, an overview of his accomplishments and importance as a composer, and a selected works list. Still has always been included in biographical reference sources specializing in African-American composers, such as in Eileen Southern's (1982) germinal Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Published seventeen years after Southern's pioneering work, the International Dictionary of Black Composers includes an article on Still's biography and a selected works list of landmark musical compositions (Murchison 1999). Still is now recognized as an important figure in American cultural life in reference works outside the field of music. An extensive article appears in the standard biographical dictionary American National Biography (Leab 1999).

Reference books devoted exclusively to Still appeared during or immediately following the centennial year. In 1995, Judith Anne Still, Celeste Anne Headlee (the composer's daughter and granddaughter, respectively), along with others, edited and published the second edition of William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music (Still, Headlee, and Headlee-Huffman 1995). An updated and revised version of Robert Haas's 1972 book, the Still-Headlee volume includes many essays from the first edition as well as several new ones, including eleven essays by Still and his closest creative collaborator (and second wife), Verna Arvey. These essays provide information on his childhood, career, method of composition, and musical aesthetic. The volume expanded Still studies by presenting for the first time original essays on specific works written by Anne K. Simpson, Donald Dorr, Paul Harold Slattery, Louis and Annette Kaufman, Jean F. Matthew, and Carolyn L. Quin. The analytical articles by Slattery, Matthew, and Quin focus on either a specific work or a group of related works. Dorr's essay on Still's operas is particularly valuable because it marks one of the first attempts to assess Still's importance as a composer of American and African-American opera. The centennial year also saw the publication of Dominique-Rene De Lerma's (1995) William Grant Still: A Register of His Works--A Tribute on the Centenary of His Birth. De Lerma has devoted his career to compiling numerous important bibliographies of African-American music, recognizing that before scholarly studies of African-American music can develop at a rapid pace, researchers must have reliable, thorough bibliographic tools. …

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