On April 30, the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra performs a pivotal American work: William Grant Still's 1931 “Afro-American Symphony,” the first symphony by an African-American composer to gain traction in the classical music world and a salient example of early symphonic jazz. The conservatory-educated, classically inclined Still’s jazz expertise was the result of on-the-job training, playing in bands and theater pit orchestras (he was proficient on numerous instruments), culminating with a year in the oboe chair of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's epoch-making 1921 musical, “Shuffle Along.” By decade's end, Still was one of the more prominent arrangers in both the jazz and musical-theater arenas.
All the while, he continued studying classical composition, most crucially with French-American ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse, who provided Still's entrée into influential New York new-music circles. Still's music was performed alongside that of
Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Carlos Chavez. But his gradual embrace of vernacular elements in his music pushed Still away from the modernism that those colleagues espoused. Asking listeners to grasp both the essence of African-American music and an abstract modern vocabulary was, Still decided, too much; with the
“Afro-American Symphony,” he cast his lot with the former.
One curious detail in the “Afro-American Symphony” encapsulates not only that classical-vernacular give-and-take but also music's ever-shifting historical prism. Near the beginning of the third movement, a bumptious scherzo (inspired by the optimism and wit of African-American preaching), Still sets his theme against an accompaniment that quotes, almost note-for-note, George Gershwin's “I Got Rhythm.” Homage or objection? Several of Still's “Shuffle Along” colleagues, upon hearing Gershwin's song, had recalled the tune as Still's, one he habitually made especial use of during in-performance jam sessions — performances Gershwin certainly heard.
Musicologist Catherine Parsons Smith suggested that the 1930 debut of “I Got Rhythm” may have, in part, spurred Still to finally write his long-gestating symphony — the composer, in some small way, staking his claim to the tune. Indeed, the symphony's scherzo has increasingly become a locus of critical attention. After decades of uneasy commerce between popular culture and the African-American vernacular, Still's quote now seems to both acknowledge that exchange and ironically demarcate its limitations, the rest of the movement spinning out histories and experiences popular appropriation can, at best, only hint at. That Still made that emphasis by leveraging classical forms adds further complexity. Even the most straightforward musical expression swims in swirling, ever-shifting historical and cultural currents.
Michael Korn conducts the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra and cellist Joon Kyun in music of Danielle Rabinowitz, Antonín Dvorák, and William Grant Still, April 30 at 3 p.m., at the Kennedy Middle School in Waltham. Tickets $20, students and seniors $15, children free; 857-919-1385; www.wphil.org.