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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Wednesday, March 31

W. G. Still's all-star lineup

Synopsis

“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 1949 production was by the New York City Opera, and the original cast included baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr, whose son, Bobby McFerrin, Jr., became a famous singer, too. Speaking of familiar names, the libretto for “Troubled Island” was written by Langston Hughes, and its dance sequences were choreographed by George Balanchine.

William Grant Still was born in Mississippi in 1895, studied music at the Oberlin Conservatory, and took private lessons from the arch conservative composer George Whitefield Chadwick as well as the 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 William Grant Still, Langston Hughes, and George 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

Additional Information

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