William Grant Still: Three Visions
Known for being one of the forefront African-American composers of the 20th century, William Grant Still’s legacy lives on today. Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, the first African-American composer to conduct a major American orchestra, the first to have an opera performed on national television, plus many more accolades and ground-breaking events. Still left behind a wealth of music in his oeuvre, including five symphonies, nine operas, over thirty choral works, a number of chamber music works, art songs and four ballets.
Still composed Three Visions for solo piano in 1935 and is described as:
“Three segments of the suite, Dark Horsemen, Summerland and Radiant Pinnacle, tell the story of the human soul after death: the body expires, and the soul goes on to an apocalyptic judgement. If it is seen that the past life has been a good one, the soul may enter ‘heaven’ or ‘Summerland’. After a period of time, the soul may reincarnate to learn additional earthly lessons on the human plane. Some souls reincarnate many times in a constant circular progress toward Godly perfection.”
Still composed the short suite for his wife, Verna Arvey, who went on to premiere the work in 1936.
Movement I – Dark Horsemen
The dissonant opening and the fervent energy laced through the accompaniment theme is said to represent the galloping hooves of the horses. The urgency in the music paired with Still’s chromatic and dissonant harmonic language creates quite the spectacle that opens this short suite.
Movement II – Summerland
The most famous of the three movements, Summerland is a musical portrait of the afterlife. The name derives from the peaceful Heaven of the Spiritualists, and adds a soft name to this soft piece. The alternating hands pass through the lyrical melody as Still draws out every inch of the music. Small movements towards a louder dynamic come and go, with Still also utilising the silence around the music. Just as it began, Summerland concludes quietly.
Movement III – Radiant Pinnacle
The finale movement, the last ‘vision’, is of the radiant future. The continual rhythmic flow shows the ever-climbing theme keep pushing, even if it doesn’t reach somewhere. The deceptive cadence at the end of the piece lets the listener know that there is much more to come…
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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