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Still’s Afro-American Symphony is not only his most famous work, but one of the most popular American symphonies of all time. When he began sketching it in 1924, he had recently finished playing in the pit orchestra for Eubie Blake and Noble

Sissle’s Shuffle Along, the musical comedy that launched the careers of Josephine

Baker and Florence Mills and, according to Langston Hughes, inaugurated the Harlem Renaissance. Still pursued other projects in the meantime but took up the symphony in earnest several years later. “It was not until the Depression struck,” he explained, “that I went jobless long enough to let the Symphony take shape. In 1930 I rented a room in a quiet building not far from my home in New York and began to work.” And he was inspired: the symphony was finished in two months.

Still had adopted central tenets of the Harlem Renaissance by this time, most notably philosopher (and friend) Alain Locke’s concept of the new African American as an individual who would vindicate blackness from racist stereotypes and reclaim it from white exploitation. Still’s use of the blues as the symphony’s unifying element manifested his engagement with this idea.

While working with W.C. Handy in Memphis in 1916, he decided that “the Blues were not immoral or trivial, as some people wanted to believe, but instead an expression of the hopes and yearnings of a lowly people, wanting a better life.” Musicologist Jon Michael Spencer has argued that Still’s symphonic treatment of the blues allowed him to “demonstrate the inherent dignity” of black folk music as an act of racial vindication, not to critique it as inferior.

Still cast the first movement loosely in sonata form, a common three-part framework in which two melodies are introduced, developed, and reprised over the course of the movement. The first melody, played by a muted trumpet, overlays the instantly recognizable harmonic pattern of the 12-bar blues. With its sweeping arc and gentle syncopation, the second melody, introduced by the oboe, is reminiscent  of a Black spiritual. The themes return in reverse order after moving through a colorful development section.

The next two movements capture distinct moods with melodic material borrowed from the first movement and transformed in new contexts. With its dark timbres, the second is a clear expression of sadness. The third, which features a banjo for local color, is a leap for joy.

The fourth movement opens with a poignant melody showcasing some of Still’s most beautiful orchestral writing. A lengthy, heartbreaking passage ultimately gives way to a reminiscence of the original blues theme in a fiery coda.

Today, Still’s daughter Judith believes that “the First Symphony shows him recognizing, with joy, that God had given him a gift that would change the thinking of the public.”

- Douglas Shadle is an assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University.