Miss Sally's Party
William Grant Still
2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, strings
Many of the symphonic pieces that constitute the American classical standards masterfully juxtapose jazz elements with classical conventions. William Grant Still, an African American composer whose works are full of attractive, communicative, and "Gershwinesque" characteristics, demonstrates this intersection through an enriching melodic appeal. Still is lauded as both "the Dean of Afro-American Composers" and "the man of many firsts." The latter best expresses his profound career as a composer. Still was the first African American composer to have an opera performed by the New York City Opera. He also conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, marking the first time an African American conducted a major ensemble. Still was the first African American to compose a symphony and have the work performed by a leading orchestra. In addition, he was the first African American composer to have an opera performed on national television.
Still was born in Mississippi but called Little Rock, Arkansas, home. He attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied composition. He furthered his education by studying with several composers, including George Whitefield and Edgar Varèse—two composers whose canons emphasize timbre and rhythm. Still served in the United States Navy during World War I in 1918 but moved to New York City in 1921, where he began his career as a composer. In 1931, Still composed his first major work, Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American", which was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic, marking him the first African-American to have their work performed by a major orchestra. In the mid-1930s, Still moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote several operas, film scores, ballets, and additional orchestral works.
_Miss Sally's Party _is a remarkable ballet that Still composed in 1940. His wife, Verna Harvey, wrote the libretto, which tells the story of a dance competition where the grand prize is a cake. Still writes the music to reflect the competitive progression of each contestant's dance. A vibrant "Introduction" begins the ballet to set the dance competition scene. Two contestants follow in "Tia's Dance" and "Toby and Tip's Dance," both of which start with confidence but sadly end up being eliminated. "Country Dance" is a reprieve before the remaining contestants showcase their skills. Miss Sally performs next, but she is both anxious and determined to win, exemplified by Still's use of brief chromaticism. The haughty antagonist, Jim Slick, enters in "Jim Slick's Dance," in which Still uses the drums to create a sly, jazz-like quality to highlight the character's arrogance. Slick's pride is rampant as he tells other contestants the prized delicacy is his, even before the competition ensues. But, two mischievous boys slip a frog down his shirt while Slick competes, causing him to lose stability and miss steps. The final dance, "The Cakewalk," is where Miss Sally and her boyfriend, Jake, compete against the declining Jim Slick. Noticing his unsteadiness, Jake and Sally gain confidence with their dancing and end up winning the prized cake. The ballet's virtue teaches that pride always goes before a fall!
notes by Dr. Philip Hoch
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