William Grant Still
Danzas de Panama for String Quartet or Quintet
William Grant Still's Danzas de Panama date from 1948 and are based on a collection of Panamanian folk tunes which were collected by Elizabeth Waldo in the 1920ís. Although there are putatively only four dances presented, each movement has at least two and sometimes three separate dances within it. The opening movement Tamborito immediately captures the listenerís attention with the instrumentalists percussively striking the sides of their instruments, creating the rhythm for this highly chromatic introduction which immediately leads to to a sadder and slower dance that is also quite chromatic. For the rest of the movement, Still ingeniously juxtaposes these two dances, one after the other seamlessly. When the faster dance returns, it is in two sections, the first fast and up-beat the second more melancholy and sounding like a close relative of the tango. The movement ends surprisingly on a soft glissando. Next comes Mejorana which sounds like a carefree Panamanian waltz. The forceful middle section is a somewhat ominous dance in two. The slowish third movement, Punto, has a gentle and very familiar Mexican sound to it. It is the kind of thing one hears in the movies when Mexican cowboys return to their hacienda at the end of a dayís work. The middle section in 6/8 is in the minor and more robust. The last movement, Cumbia y Congo begins again with a percussive hand-pounding to a high-spirited and fast dance. At first it sounds purely African but very quickly a heavy dose of Latin melody is added to the mix. The coda is brilliant and exciting. Any one of these movements could serve as a very effective encore. Together, they form an impressive tour de force.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was one of the most important African-American composers of the 20th century. Although classical music was his first love, he also wrote for radio and television. Stillís orchestral works have been widely performed, at least in the United States, but his chamber music is not well-known. He was sent to college by his mother to study medicine but in the end studied composition with Edgar Varese at Oberlin and later with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory.