Symphony No. 4, "Autochthonous"
William Grant Still
Still’s brief but potent Fourth Symphony glows with radiant melodies. He once wrote that melodies can appear “suddenly, for no apparent reason” while a composer contemplates nature, or even life itself. And that is precisely how the symphony took shape. Files in Still’s archive indicate that after returning home from earning an honorary doctorate at Oberlin in the summer of 1947, he “got a good theme which seemed to be a good one for a Symphony, then developed it.” If only it were that easy! His diary shows that he worked on the symphony nearly every day in August, occasionally noting that “God is certainly blessing me” on the good days while it was “difficult to compose” on the bad. He persisted, and the score was complete in just over a month.
Still’s original program note states that the symphony “speaks of the fusion of musical cultures in North America.” This image of cultural pluralism marked a significant conceptual departure from the Harlem Renaissance aesthetic underpinning his Afro-American Symphony, which was intended to describe African Americans from the outset. Still’s daughter Judith explained that the Fourth, in contrast, “is praise for people who came ‘from the soil,’ abused and enslaved, and recognizes the power of those who had been so mightily put upon when they triumphed with honor over a difficult past. Out of the soil of oppression and forced degradation they rose up and acquitted themselves, bringing along their unique songs, humor, and distinctive, vibrant culture.” Rather than being set apart in this work, an African American musical identity springs to the fore within the context of a broader, more complex American cultural fabric. These vital cultural combinations are immediately apparent in the music.
The buoyant principal melody of the first movement, which recurs throughout the symphony, bears Still’s signatures: rising and falling thirds along with easy syncopation. According to Still, the melody’s upbeat character “speaks of optimism and of progress, of America moving ahead.” The harmonic language is far more dissonant than in earlier works, suggesting intentional engagement with contemporary modernist trends created outside the Harlem Renaissance milieu. These harsh dissonances, along with thick orchestral textures, create palpable dramatic tension. The brooding second movement, anchored by a plaintive melody in the oboe, portrays American “soft-heartedness, sympathy, benevolence, and generosity.” The violins rudely interrupt with an echo of the first movement theme but soon recede into a series of placid episodes.
The third movement opens with “unmistakably American” humor captured by a walking bass, a syncopated melody, and brushed percussion. A brass-heavy middle section reformulates the first movement theme and evokes the character of swing bands.
The finale, which Still described as “the warmth and the spiritual side of the American people,” builds slowly to a rousing climax with a mixture of frenetic textures and luxuriously grand melodic material. A note Still ultimately deleted captures the culminating feeling well: “Men look devotedly and hopefully up to God and find solace and a newer life.”
— Douglas Shadle
Douglas Shadle is an assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University.