William Grant Still: Wood Notes


Inspired by William Grant Still’s love of nature and K. Mitchell Pilcher’s poetry, Wood Notes is a four-movement orchestral suite. Still’s classic American style is woven into the fabric of this suite, with warm melodies and rich textures creating a truly pleasing suite of music. The work premiered in 1948 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has since only been recorded once by the Fort Smith Symphony with John Jeter. 


The Music

Scored for full orchestra, Wood Notes utilises many different voices within the ensemble to create both a pastoral and impressionistic atmosphere. 


Movement I – Singing River

The longest movement of the four, the opening movement is entitled Singing River. The ebb and flow of the string part is said to represent the flow of water as the river passes through the scene. The warm timbre created by the orchestra is decorated by the flute and other woodwind instruments. Perhaps the most quintessential in the American style, this opening movement is lyrical and plays into the pastoral theme. Still uses muted trumpets to create interjections that soon melt back into the rich string theme. As the music grows into the climax of the movement, Still utilises the brass and percussion to bolster the sound and add to the growing dynamics of this section. 

As the music dies away back into the opening theme, the movement comes to its conclusion after the woodwind have one last play through the principal theme of the movement. The horns play their call theme once more before the strings slowly die away.


Movement II – Autumn Night

The swirling second movement opens with a solo flute accompanied by pizzicato strings. The light style of this movement adds more to Still’s impressionistic style that sees a number of voices all speaking at once. The lightness in the texture is evident even when lots of voices are singing, with Still uses mutes in the brass once more to create a crisp sound. The jollity of the music comes out in sections of this movement, with the rest of music staying rather mysterious.


Movement III – Moon Dusk

Moon Dusk is the slowest movement of the four, with the elongated woodwind opening staying at the core of this movement. Swirling strings accompany, as the woodwind explores this intriguing theme. Once again Still relies on his impressionism rules to create a whirlpool of sound as soloists begin to rear their heads. An oboe solo brings the music into the pastoral side, which is soon followed by a soft violin solo. As the music grows into the climax, the themes fluctuate between voices, creating a really interesting effect. This movement ends quietly. 


Movement IV – Whippoorwill’s Shoes

The playful and humorous finale movement is light on its feet and quick-witted at every turn. Quick and intricate melodies interweave between sections, as Still uses the brass and percussion for bold interjections. The youthful theme is exciting paired with Still’s very fast changes between dynamics, character and textures. Similarly to the opening movement, the finale also represents the classic American style from this time, with warm colours from the ensemble and perky melodies taking the lead. The movement ends suddenly and with lots of energy. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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