Composers Datebook®

W.G. Still's all-star lineup

Composers Datebook - March 31, 2024


Troubled Island, an opera about Haiti by William Grant Still, was written in 1938 but had to wait 11 years for its first performance, which took place on today’s date in 1949.

That production was by the New York City Opera, and the original cast included baritone Robert McFerrin Sr., whose son, Bobby McFerrin Jr., also became a famous singer. Speaking of familiar names, the libretto for Troubled Island was written by Langston Hughes, and its dance sequences were choreographed by George Balanchine.

Still was born in Mississippi in 1895, studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and took private lessons from arch conservative composer George Whitefield Chadwick, as well as avant-garde firebrand Edgard Varèse. Like many composers active in the 1930s and ‘40s, he moved to Los Angeles to write for Hollywood, but also achieved fame as a preeminent African-American composer of concert works.

The critical reception to Troubled Island in 1949 was negative. One review wrote, “Troubled Island sounds rather as if the libretto of Tosca had been set to the music of The Desert Song.”

But with the hindsight of history, any project involving Still, Hughes and Balanchine sounds downright intriguing.

Music Played in Today's Program

William Grant Still (1895-1978): Symphony No. 1 (‘Afro-American’); Detroit Symphony; Neeme Järvi, cond. Chandos 9154

On This Day


  • 1732 - Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, in Rohrau

  • 1872 - Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, in Gruzino, Novgorod district (Julian date: Mar. 19)


  • 1880 - Polish composer and violinist Henryk Wieniawski, 44, in Moscow

  • 1901 - British composer John Stainer, 60, in Verona, Italy


  • 1723 - Handel: Concerto (HWV 331) (Julian date: March 20)

  • 1739 - Handel: Organ Concerto (HWV 296a) (Julian date: March 20)

  • 1745 - Rameau: opera-ballet, Platée, at Versailles

  • 1784 - Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 16, in Vienna, with composer as soloist

  • 1794 - Haydn: Symphony No. 100 (Military), conducted by the composer on his 62nd birthday, at the Hanover-Square Concert Rooms in London

  • 1841 - R. Schumann: Symphony No. 1 (Spring), by Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Felix Mendelssohn conducting

  • 1901 - Dvorák: opera Rusalka, in Prague at the National Theater

  • 1913 - Webern: Six Pieces for orchestra, in Vienna

  • 1932 - Chávez: ballet Horsepower, in Philadelphia

  • 1947 - Ulysses Kay: Short Overture, in New York City

  • 1949 - William Grant Still: opera Troubled Island, in New York City

  • 1951 - R. Strauss: Munich Waltz, posthumously in Vienna; This music was originally written for the 1939 film

  • 1961 - Françaix: L'Horloge de Flore, by oboist John de Lancie, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting

  • 2001 - Peter Lieberson: Piano Quintet, at Carnegie Hall, by pianist Peter Serkin with the Orion String Quartet


  • 1837 - Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, the two reigning virtuosi of their day, perform a pianistic "duel" at a benefit concert in aid of Italian refuguees at the Parisian salon of Princess Cristina Belgiojso-Trivulzio

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation


Latest Composers Datebook® Episodes


Latest Composers Datebook® Episodes


About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®