Composers of Color, part V: George Walker
George Walker (1922-2018)
Unlike the other composers in our series, George Walker does not have a signature element that defines his compositions. “I try not to duplicate what I have already done,” he says. His work draws from many influences whether it be jazz, romantic, spiritual or 12 tone/serial. Any of these could be the idiom of a particular piece. Take for instance Lyric for Strings, titled Lament, and dedicated to his grandmother who had recently died. Originally scored as the middle movement of his 1st string quartet, Walker arranged the work for string orchestra. Its character is lush with late romantic harmonies. Written in 1946, it is his most popular work.
Walker was a phenomenal pianist. Enrolling at Oberlin at only age 14, he graduated four years later and went straight to Curtis Institute where he studied with Rudolph Serkin. As winner of the Philadelphia Youth Auditions he played the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It took a few years (naturally), but in 1950 he became the first black instrumentalist to be signed by major management.
Listen to Caprice, a work written at Oberlin in 1941 and here played by the composer. Jazz is definitely an influence.
And Toccata from his Three Pieces which he composed for his Town Hall debut in 1945. For Poulenc lovers, there is a repeated quote here from his sextet for piano and winds starting @1:01.
At Curtis, Walker studied composition as a way of channeling energy he had left over(!) from practicing 5 hours a day. He was accepted as a student of Nadia Boulanger in 1957. In 1996 he won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Lilacs.’ In the words of the committee: “The unanimous choice of the Music Jury, this passionate, and very American, musical composition … has a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality using words of Walt Whitman.” It was premiered by the Boston Symphony. The idiom is decidedly modernistic.
One of his more popular pieces is the Trombone Concerto written in 1957. On the composer’s website there is a description of the final movement: “The third movement, replete with syncopations, third relationships and a fugato is unlike any other classical rondo in its playfulness and good humor.”
A short piece about the composer with his two sons (one a composer/violinist, the other a playwright)
My Lord, What a Morning
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