William Grant Still’s Dismal Swamp

Notes by TŌN bass trombonist Austin Pancner

The Composer
William Grant Still was an African-American composer who had a diverse career as an arranger, composer, conductor, and a veteran of the United States Navy. As a person of color, he is remembered for being the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States, to have an opera produced by a major organization, and to compose concert music that has been continuously played after his death. As a composer he wrote nearly 200 pieces of music—including symphonies, ballets, operas, choral works, chamber music, and works for solo instruments—drawing most of his compositional material from blues, while at the same time rejecting spirituals. Today, we think of blues as flattened 3rds and 7ths in a major scale or chord, but Still used blues elements such as modal inflections, irregular phrase lengths (such as the 5- or 7-bar blues chord progression), and descending melodic curves (such as many notes that fall in nature, creating a falling-like feeling). Still’s most famous work was his Afro-American Symphony (1931), which was also the first symphony by a Black American composer to be played by a major orchestra. (TŌN performed the piece in 2018 at the Fisher Center at Bard.)

The Work
Dismal Swamp, a symphonic poem for orchestra, was commissioned by The League of Composers in the late 1930s, and has rarely been played. It is dedicated to Quinto Maganini, an American composer and conductor. The work is an evocative portrait of enslaved people’s flight to freedom, and was inspired by a poem written by his wife, Verna Arvey:

Oh, swamp! your gloomy surface strikes me cold
Your sombre stumps no joy awake
Yet beyond your rotting, odorous mould
Strange charm greets those who penetrate.

No longer dismal, swamp!
Wild ferns, green moss, small twigs a-spin
Your beauty acrid; verdure damp
What joy for those who gaze within!

When I listen to this piece, I imagine a musical landscape and portrait of a dreary swampland. As the piece continues I walk deeper into the swamp, taking note of the different beautiful elements. This eventually leads to the heart of the swamp, which culminates in the music as a penultimate climax.