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7 New Paradigms in William Grant Still’s Blue Steel gayle murchison “My love has always been opera—the theater. This love of operatic music, stimulated in my early youth by listening to operatic records, was the thing that first aroused the desire to compose. All my other work has been a means to this end.”1 So wrote William Grant Still in 1949. By this time he had composed four operas: Blue Steel (1934), Troubled Island (1938), A Bayou Legend (1941),and A Southern Interlude (1942), and was progressing on a fifth, Costaso (1949–50). He was only two months away from the first full production of any of his operas, Troubled Island, which premiered March 31,1949, at New York’s City Center. Enchanted with opera since first hearing recordings in 1912,Still had long desired to compose for the stage. By the time he began work on Blue Steel, he had partially realized his dream of composing for the stage with his ballets La Guiablesse (1927) and Sahdji (1929–30). By 1931, Still was well established as a composer of orchestral music and one of the United States’ most promising young composers; he was certainly the most prominent African American composer of art music of his generation. His tone poems, symphony, art songs, and ballets had been successfully performed by major orchestras and companies in the United States and in Europe. Yet one goal continued to elude him: a successful opera. Still’s opportunity to devote himself to opera composition full-time finally came in 1934. On March 23,1934, he received written notice that he had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would provide him with twenty-five hundred dollars over the course of one year. A few weeks later, an April 2 New York Times headline publicly announced, “Guggenheim Fund Aids 40 in 10th Year.”2 In May 1934, Still left New York for Los Angeles. The fellowship would provide him with sufficient financial support to free him from commercial work so that he could compose his first full-length opera, Blue Steel. On May 22,Still arrived in Los Angeles with the scenario of the opera, written by his friend, actor-writer Carlton Moss, in hand.3 For a libretto, Still turned to one of his most recent collaborators, Harold Bruce Forsythe, a writer and pianist with whom Still had collaborated for his ballet ἀ e Sorcerer and for the aborted “From the Furnace of the Sun.” When Still began composing Blue Steel in the early 1930s, American composers —black and white—were grappling with the challenge of composing American opera. In the 1920s and 1930s, jazz had offered composers such as Louis Gruenberg and John Alden Carpenter (and European composers such as Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill) an idiom through which they could express a modern, urban, and urbane American identity. For Virgil Thomson, the cubist literary musings of librettist Gertrude Stein coupled with the African American voice and body provided him the means by which to infuse the operatic tradition with something old—the lives of saints—and something new, in this case the conflation of European high modernism with Primitivism. European and white American composers drew freely on Primitivist motifs in order to free themselves from formal restraints of nineteenth-century practices, mining the cultures of peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific—as well as that of African Americans—in search of new techniques that they could appropriate for their own works. For Europeans and European Americans, such cultures offered them something exotic and fresh, and few concerned themselves with the social or political implications of their aesthetic and artistic choices. With little concern for the “authenticity” of such representations, their practices differed little from composers of previous generations who sought to inject “local color” into their works. African American composers, on the other hand, did not have the same license or aims and found themselves in a perplexing bind as a result. They faced struggles on multiple fronts, from having to fight against racism that questioned the intellectual and artistic capabilities of African Americans and sought to limit them as artists by relegating their participation to jazz, musical theater, or other popular genres. They also had the added burden of having to avoid perpetuating racist stereotypes in their works, which meant that use of their own cultural traditions could be a doubled-edged sword. Such actions could give their works a degree of authenticity and credibility that their white counterparts...


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