Various Artists

Skyward My People Rose: Music of William Grant Still

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Witness, Vol. II, is a Collins Classics release featuring the Plymouth Music Series Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Philip Brunelle and devoted to music of William Grant Still. The landmark work here is And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940), a rare piece in which Still openly expresses his feelings about racism, a subject he preferred to avoid in his musical compositions. Blessed with a text by poet Katherine Garrison Chapin, And They Lynched Him on a Tree is not as shocking as its title; the cantata is more of a tragic Deep South ritual of sadness and shame, scored powerfully by Still and played and sung beautifully here. Legendary bass baritone William Warfield is heard in a compelling dramatic turn, taking the important part of the narrator. The ballet Miss Sally's Party is a charming suite of American rural dances that are fresh, unhackneyed, and well orchestrated. Wailing Woman, on a text by Still's wife Verna Arvey, is similar in mood to And They Lynched Him on a Tree, but more restrained in content. The balance is made up with two organ pieces, played by Brunelle, and Still's wordless arrangement of Swanee River for chorus.

The recording itself is a bit thin and weak on the bottom end. The performances all around, however, are fabulous. This music should be known to every American, as William Grant Still's music goes to the very heart of the American experience. This Collins Classics release disappeared in 1999 along with the demise of the company; in 2004 it made a reappearance on the Clarion label as Skyward My People Rose: Music of William Grant Still.

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