Today is the 60th anniversary of New York City Opera’s premiere of Troubled Island, a opera created by two of the 20th century’s most significant African Americans—composer William Grant Still and poet Langston Hughes, who was the work’s librettist. The performance garnered the kind of national media attention few composers alive today can ever dream of, e.g. there was even a Time magazine article about the premiere (which is now available online and is a fascinating read).
Tonight in commemoration, Harlem’s Opera Noire will present an excerpted concert performance of the work, under the auspices of City Opera, in the Langston Hughes Auditorium, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Unfortunately the performance is sold out, so my only exposure to the work remains a tantalizing private recording of it I heard several years back. (To date, there has yet to be a commercial recording of the opera.)
Langston Hughes is a household name, but to this day William Grant Still is not someone on most folks’ radar. Yet, for some reason the stars are in alignment for Still this year. Last Sunday, the American Symphony Orchestra performed three of Still’s works—Darker America (1924), Africa (1928), and the Symphony No. 2 (1937)—at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. And in November, there will be a four-day conference exploring Still’s legacy, with symposia and concert performances, in Natchez, Mississippi.
Why this year? Usually revivals happen on significant birth and death anniversaries, and yet William Grant Still (1895-1978) has neither this year. However, in addition to it being the 60th anniversary of the premiere of Troubled Island, it is also the 80th anniversary of the composition of his Afro-American Symphony. And according to the organizers of the Natchez conference, in two years it will be the 75th anniversary of his debut appearance conducting at the Hollywood Bowl (1936), which was the first time an African American led a major American orchestra.
The focus on birthdays and death days has given music a strange ahistorical perspective. When someone is born is ultimately not the date that is the most important to history. By focusing on dates that were significant to music history, the Still revival of 2009 might be tapping into a better way to remember important composers of the past. While any excuse to keep in people’s minds music that is fundamental to our cultural heritage is welcome (birthdays included), focusing on the important achievements of composers instead might be a better way to prove the relevance of this music.