Afro-American Life Insurance Company

Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American"

Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" (1930) by William Grant Still was the first symphony written by an African American man and performed for an American audience. It is a symphonic piece for full orchestra, including celeste, harp, and tenor banjo. It combines a fairly traditional symphony with blues progressions and rhythms that were characteristic of popular African music at the time. A traditional symphony contains four movements – the first is usually in sonata form, the second is a slower movement, the third is either a minuet and trio or a dance-like scherzo, and the fourth is normally a faster movement in rondo or sonata form – and is traditionally characteristic of orchestral pieces written by white European composers. The blues is a type of music that originates in African American communities in the United States, and typically consisted of twelve-bar patterns of chord progressions. The blues had not been heavily or noticeably incorporated into traditional musical forms such as the symphony before Still. This combination of the symphony and blues music reflects Still’s view that both the black and white cultures in America at the time had strong influences on each other, even though their cultures were very segregated.


Still composed the Afro-American Symphony in a time frame of about 3 months, during which he had no steady job. Before he actually started the Symphony, Still kept a journal entitled “Material for Rashana” – Rashana was an opera by Still, but was never completed. Sketches and the mapping out of the four movements of the Symphony are in this journal, along with Still’s purpose for writing the piece: “I seek in the ‘Afro-American Symphony’ to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress”(Smith 122). Still veered away from the ultramodernist style of his teacher, Edgard Varèse in the Afro-American Symphony in the sense that he used obvious, though irregular, key relationships as opposed to a great deal of chromatic harmonies, so that audiences would not be as distracted by the style, but would recognize and focus more on Still’s use of fusion of Euro-American and African musical characteristics. Still believed that if he composed in the style of the ultramodernists, the African music he was trying to write would not be recognizable as such.

Movement I

The first movement, moderato assai, contains a typical blues progression of a twelve bar pattern. Still titled this movement ‘Longing’ in his “Rashana” notebook. The movement has a tonal center of A-flat major that changes to G major in theme 2, and returns to A-flat major in the end. Its opening theme did not drastically change from Still’s original mapping out of the symphony (see figures 1 and 2 below).

This opening theme expands into the first of two main themes of the movement, and it returns various times throughout the first, second, and third movements. This theme – theme 1 – shown below, is first played by the trumpet and uses classic blues harmonies and melodic progressions.

Theme 1 repeats at measure 19, this time played by the clarinet, and the flutes interrupt each small phrase within the theme with their own counter-melody that contrasts with the theme in its straight (not swung) rhythms. Still then takes small motifs of theme 1 and develops them, transitioning into theme 2 played by the oboe, starting at measure 45. Theme 2 continues to develop, and its melody returns with the cello section. The ending motifs of theme 2 expand into a loud exciting march-like section with the snare drum that contrasts with both themes in that it is very rhythmical. This section leads right back to theme 2, but this time in a minor key. The minor key gives this section a much more longing and lamenting feeling. The lamenting mood does not last very long, as theme 1 returns shortly after, ending the movement.

Each movement is accompanied by excerpts from four different dialect poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The quotations make up epigraphs for each movement and serve to illustrate Still’s intentions in composing the symphony. The epigraph in the beginning of this movement is from Dunbar’s "Twell de Night Is Pas'": "All de night long twell de moon goes down,

Lovin’ I set at huh feet,

Den fu’ de long jou’ney back f’om de town,

Ha’d, but de dreams mek it sweet."

The end of the first movement is accompanied with the following quote:

“All my life long twell de night has pas’

Let de wo’k come ez it will,

So dat I fin’ you, my honey, at last,

Somewhaih des ovah de hill.”

Movement II

The second movement, adagio, titled Sorrow in Still’s “Rashana” notebook, contains related themes from the first movement, but in a spiritual style. The movement is more chromatic than the first and employs less functional chord progressions. The epigraph in the beginning of the second movement is taken from “W’en I Gits Home,” and reflects the spiritual melody of the movement: "It’s moughty tiahsome layin’ ‘roun’

Dis sorer-laden erfly groun’,

An’ oftentimes I thinks, thinks I,

‘T would be a sweet t’ing des to die,

An go ‘long home."

Movement III

The third movement, Animato was assigned the title “Humor” by Still in “Rashana.” They key center for this movement is once again A-flat. The movement has two major themes, each with two prevailing variations. In measure eight, theme 1A, “Hallelujah,” begins (shown below).

This theme is accompanied by a countermelody in the horns which resembles Gershwin’s "I Got Rhythm" (which premiered on October 14, 1930 – only a few weeks before Still began drafting the Afro-American Symphony) in the countermelody in the horns in measures 8-11 and in the flute and oboe in measures 12-15.

Theme 2A (shown below) is played by a mixture of low strings and winds (i.e. cello, trombone, etc.) and contrasts with theme 1 in that it is very fanfare-like and interrupts theme 1 whenever it comes in.

This movement, when performed by the Kansas City Philharmonic under Karl Krueger in 1938, had such an effect on the audience and musicians that Krueger had to interrupt the concert and repeat the movement.

This movement is based on the poem, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” by Dunbar about emancipation and citizenship of the blacks in America. The lines quoted by Still in the score are as follows:

"An’ we’ll shout ouag halleluyahs,

On dat mighty reck’nin’ day."

Movement IV

The fourth movement, lento, con risoluzione, or as Still titled it in “Rashana,” “Aspiration,” begins with a hymn-like section, and continues on in a modal fashion, eventually ending with an upbeat and lively finale. This movement, ultimately in F minor, avoids traditional progressions from the dominant to the tonic (V-I). The opening contains no suggestion of modulation and has no authentic cadences, producing a sense of ambiguity of the tonic. The slow modal sections that follow the opening are centered on E natural, so by the time these slow sections are interrupted by passages in F minor, the use of E natural as a leading tone has been downplayed. In the finale, a V to I progression is avoided entirely, and the bass instead moves from an F to a D-flat, resembling Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

The following epigraph follows along with the fourth movement:

"Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,

They banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher."


  • Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant still: A Study in Contradictions. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 2000.
  • Judith Anne Still, William Grant Still: A Voice High-Sounding. The Master-Player Library, Flagstaff, Arizona, ed. 1, 1990. ISBN 1-877873-14-4
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