William Grant Still, Bells (1944)

Excerpt from m. i, 'Phantom Chapel'

Excerpt from m. ii, 'Fairy Knoll'

With the permission of BBC Radio 3.


Born in Mississippi, William Grant Still was acclaimed by conductor Leopold Stokowski as "one of our greatest American composers". His first symphony was the most widely performed by an American from its composition in 1930 until 1950, and his works were played internationally by the Berlin Philhamonic, London Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, honorary doctorates from Oberlin among other institutions, and the Key to the State of Mississippi.

Bells was composed both as an orchestral work and a piano suite in 1944 and inspired by John Townsend Trowbridge's poem of 1873 'The Phantom Chapel'. It captures perfectly the unsettling and ghostly atmosphere of the text: "half hid by elms that fringed the shore, The semblance of a chapel stood where never chapel stood before... Thereat we murmured: "Wherefore pray for perfect knowledge? Better far Than the sure insight of the day, The moonlight's soft illusions are".

Note by Clare Hammond