William Grant Still: Lyric Quartet


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. 


The Music

Lyric Quartet was composed in 1960, and was dedicated to Still’s friend, Joachim Chassman. Set into three movements subtitled “Musical Portraits of Three Friends”, the quartet takes the listener on a personal journey. 


Movement I – The Sentimental One

Subtitled ‘The Sentimental One’, the opening unison fluctuations create warmth between the quartet’s timbres. Throughout much of this movement the ensemble plays as a unit of sound, which creates ripples of music. The style in which this movement is written showcases Still’s more sensitive style of writing, which is highlighted through the textures and rhythms of the music. The definition of ‘Sentimental’ is “of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness or nostalgia”, and Still manages to get all of these things within the first movement. The lack of big dramatic changes and the familiarity and warmth of the style accentuates the nostalgia and tenderness of this sentimental friend and the effect they had on the composer. The music resolves on the final chord to, ending this sentimental movement quietly.


Movement II – The Quiet One

Another fluctuating opening in unison paves the road ahead for The Quiet One. Throughout this movement Still holds back in the way that the melody is presented, which perhaps reflects the characteristics of the quiet friend. The sweetness of the upper strings sits neatly on top of the warm lower strings, creating perfect harmony between the ensemble. Still uses pizzicato sparingly in this movement to experiment with the timbre, however the movement largely consists of unison arco playing. Deeply reflective and personal, The Quiet One really shows Still’s maturity as a composer. 


Movement III – The Jovial One

The finale movement, dedicated to ‘The Jovial One’ opens with a playful melody. The most energetic and driven of the three movements, the jovial character is established straight away. Exciting whirling from the upper strings in the central section builds tension as the driving force of the lower strings keeps the music moving along at quite a pace. The bouncy melody, led by the violin at the end, comes to its epic finale with all the parts coming together. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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