William Grant Still “On Composing for the Harp”

In previous blogposts, classmate Abigail Davis explored the relationship between ideas of harp playing and race in her posts “The Harp: Do You See it as a White Instrument” part I and II. As I was searching for primary source materials for this blogpost, I came across an article written by William Grant Still called “On Composing for the Harp”, which expands on Abigail’s research of non-Western harp instruments.

William Grant Still, an American composer and the first black American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, turned to his roots for musical inspiration. He rejected spirituals as a source for music because of the caucasian influence that was present in the genre, and instead took blues as his inspiration, as heard in Afro-American Symphony.

Listen for the 12 bar blues in the first movement:

When writing one of his compositions for harp, an instrument that he was not very familiar with, he turned to his African roots for inspiration, in particular one of the Nilotic African tribes. For the name of the composition, he used the title “Ennanga”, which is a bow harp that resembles an Egyptian harp. It is played on the performers lap, can be carried around, and found over many parts of Africa. Grant Still did not wish to imitate the sound of the ennanga, but he did intend to identify the harp instrument as an influential source for his composition.


In Grant Still’s article, he describes the importance that the title had to an audience member from Uganda:

A young man from Uganda came backstage to say that he recognized the word “ennanga” as belonging to his people, that he felt a kinship with the music, and that it reminded him of home. For him, at least, the music had accomplished its purpose.

In accounts like this one, we can see the importance of bringing into conversation a more encompassing history of the harp. Abigail started an important discussion in her blog posts, one that led to me challenge my initial association with the harp. Along with other primary sources like Grant Still’s writing, we can continue to explore the rich history and repertoire that is often left out of the canon.

Works Cited

Davis, A. (2021, September 27). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music. https://pages.stolaf.edu/americanmusic/2021/09/26/the-harp-do-you-see-it-as-a-white-instrument/

Davis, A. (2021, October 18). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Part ii. Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music. https://pages.stolaf.edu/americanmusic/2021/10/18/the-harp-do-you-see-it-as-a-white-instrument-part-ii/

Ennanga: Fig.1: Ennanga [arched harp or bow harp], West Nile, Uganda, c1970. Edinburgh University. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-8000923729.

Grant, W. (2021). On composing for the harp. The American Harp Journal, , 36-37. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/on-composing-harp/docview/2505727605/se-2?accountid=351

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