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A Unique Wartime Elegy from an American Original

With Memorial Day this weekend, and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe earlier this month, I wanted to spotlight some American music from the war years on this week’s Classical Tulsa.

We’ll hear works by Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and David Diamond, but the piece I’m most excited to feature is In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy, an orchestral elegy by William Grant Still

A classically trained composer who got his start arranging for jazz bands, William Grant Still catapulted to fame with the 1931 premiere of his Afro-American Symphony. In 1943, when he was commissioned to write a patriotic work by the government-funded League of Composers, his thoughts immediately turned to the nation’s black servicemen, who were fighting and dying overseas for a country that practiced segregation and lynching back at home. As a US Navy veteran from the First World War, Still had experienced America’s fraught dynamic of race and patriotism firsthand, so he chose to honor their sacrifice in a direct and moving piece with echoes of spirituals. 

After its 1944 premiere with the New York Philharmonic, In Memoriam was performed throughout the country, with critics hailing Still as “the American Tchaikovsky.” But after the war, the piece languished in obscurity, along with most of the composer’s works.

Tune in to hear the first recording of this remarkable piece in over sixty years, this Friday at noon, May 22, 2020, on Classical 88.7 KWTU HD-1.