April 14 | William Grant Still’s Three Visions, performed by Joseph Stiefel
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About the composer and piece
William Grant Still wrote his Three Visions for piano in 1935, one year after his move from New York to Los Angeles. This coincided with his shift to a self-deemed “universal” musical style, an eclectic period where he began to synthesize neo-Romanticism, various strains of modernism, and the African-American vernacular idioms for which he was most famous. The Three Visions were his first original composition for solo piano, and like the Seven Traceries of a few years later, they were dedicated to and premiered by his wife, pianist Verna Arvey. (Click here to read more about William Grant Still’s biography and re-watch Amanda Andrishak’s performance of “Out of the Silence” from the Seven Traceries!)
In the Three Visions, Still pianistically simulated his own visions, messages, and dreams from the spirit world. During this period he was deeply immersed in the mystical beliefs of the Theosophists and Spiritualists who had a large following in Southern California where he was living, and he described sitting at a piano and seeking contact with the spirit to inspire his composition. The Visions depict an apocalypse, an afterlife, and reincarnation. In other words, they open with death, but close with life. As Arvey wrote: “ever-climbing and never-ending.”
The first movement, “Dark Horsemen,” alludes to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. In this final, apocalyptic book of the Christian bible, the Four Horsemen bring conquest, war, famine, and death. Arvey described “Dark Horsemen” as a vision of horror in which “the hoof beats of horses alternate with shrieks of anguish they cause by their very presence.” Still represents the galloping horse and anguished cries with abrupt, dissonant motives largely derived from octatonic pitch collections.
Arvey wrote that the second movement, “Summerland,” is “a portrait of promised beauty in the afterlife…after the peaceful Heaven of the Spiritualists.” Still himself referred to “Summerland” as “the Elysium of the Spiritualists,” the place that awaits a good person after death and judgment. Lush impressionistic textures combine with jazz harmonies and pentatonic melodies to create an atmosphere of serene beauty. “Summerland” is one of Still’s most popular movements, and he arranged it many times for other instruments, such as this performance by violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins.
The final movement, “Radiant Pinnacle,” tells the most complex story of the three. Still’s daughter Judith Anne Still has written that it “speaks of man’s aspiration toward God…. [T]he spiritual aspirant falls back from his goal, not quite reaching the Divine height. In this way the listener is told that the spiritual man dies, steps closer to God in the afterlife, then returns to life through rebirth or reincarnation in order that he may learn new lessons of purity of heart and compassion.” The title of the movement refers literally to the bright (“radiant”) light experienced as the pianist reaches the divine climax (“pinnacle”). Still portrays the soul’s journey with a fluctuating sense of tonality. A modally ambiguous opening that simultaneously suggests tonal centers of B, A, and F# before initially settling on B dorian. While the climax occurs on the dominant of A major, the piece mysteriously sinks down to F# minor for its ending, perhaps suggesting that the narrative is unfinished, an endless circle of death and reincarnation.
Music is available from William Grant Still Publishing.
About this week’s performer
Joseph Stiefel is in his final semester of an MM/MA in piano performance and musicology, studying piano with Evelyne Brancart. This year he has presented lecture recitals of piano music by Margaret Bonds and William Grant Still. He is from the small town of Victor, Iowa.