New Music Box: George Walker: Concise and Precise
Sergio A. Mims writes:
The New Music Box website has a very extensive and fascinating new interview with the legendary composer George Walker.
New Music Box
By Frank J. Oteri
on September 1, 2017
on September 1, 2017
The shocking massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 prompted composer George Walker to pay tribute to its nine victims in his latest orchestra work, Sinfonia No. 5.
“I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston,” Walker explained when we visited him at his home in Montclair, New Jersey. “I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.”
While it’s certainly not the first time a composer felt compelled to create music in response to a great tragedy, what makes Walker’s case much rarer is that when he completed the composition last year he was 94 years old. When we visited Juan Orrego-Salas in 2014, just a few weeks after his 95th birthday, he told us he stopped composing shortly after he turned 90, claiming that he had written all he had to write. Admittedly, there have been some significant works by nonagenarians—Havergal Brian’s last two symphonies, Jeronimas Kačinskas’s fourth string quartet, Leo Ornstein’s last two piano sonatas, and tons of pieces by Elliott Carter, who then went on to compose 18 works after his 100th birthday. But, to the best of my knowledge, Walker’s new symphonic work is the only such piece by a living composer that age. Certainly, it’s the only work by a prominent living nonagenarian whose music has been featured on dozens of recordings and who has received the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
But what perhaps makes Walker’s story even more unusual is that while he is now arguably the eldest statesman among still-active composers, he began his career as a child prodigy. He started studying the piano at the age of five, composing as a teenager, and had become something of a cause célèbre by his early 20s. He made his New York piano recital debut at Town Hall at the age of 23 in a program of mostly standard repertoire, which also featured three of his own compositions. In a review published the following morning in The New York Times, Walker was hailed as “an authentic talent of marked individuality and fine musical insight.” The following year, Walker’s still popular Lyric for String Orchestra (originally titled Lament), which he had arranged from a movement of his first string quartet written in memory of his grandmother, received its premiere in a radio broadcast conducted by his Curtis classmate and good friend Seymour Lipkin.
“Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor,” Walker remembered. “I said to him, ‘If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?’ Just like that. … It was just right on the spot. And he said yes. So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it. … Something that was pointed out to me is the Lyric is not necessarily a simple piece. It alternates between major and modal. In touching upon modes, it became chromatic. But the chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary to include dissonance as a part of the harmonic palette, not in dissonance that is totally disconnected from something.”
Following this initial success, Walker began a wide range of works, spanning repertoire for solo piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, chorus, and numerous songs. Throughout the ensuing seven decades, he has remained a staunch champion of traditional classical forms—to date, he was written ten sonatas, two string quartets, and formidable concertos for piano, violin, cello, and trombone. Yet his music has been hardly retrogressive. “When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!” he animatedly quipped at one point. And over the course of nearly three quarters of a century, his music grew considerably more complex, often veering toward atonality. He even briefly flirted with serialism in his 1960 solo piano composition Spatials. “I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict,” he opined. “[O]ne can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.”
If there’s any quality that distinguishes all of Walker’s music it’s its conciseness and preciseness. Maybe that’s why he has now composed five relatively brief works he has titled sinfonias and has eschewed the composition of large-scale symphonies. “Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament,” he acknowledged. “The sinfonias are all extremely concise works.… [T]he idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.”
There was a somewhat uncharacteristic touch of disappointment in Walker’s voice as he said this—Walker is always extremely poised and disciplined. His aesthetics remained seemingly impervious to passing trends. But he’s now 95 and has still not been able to secure a date for the premiere performance of Sinfonia No. 5. However, never one to wait for others to make things happen, Walker hired an orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, and a conductor, Ian Hobson—who together have now recorded virtually all of Walker’s orchestral compositions for Albany Records—to make a studio recording of his new work so at least he can hear it. He’s hoping to release it within the year so others can listen to it as well. He played us the first proof following our lengthy discussion through a high-end audio system that takes pride of place in his living room. It is visceral music, totally appropriate given the subject matter to which he was responding. But there are also moments of tenderness and beauty. It is music that offers hope, which is extremely cathartic, even though, for Walker, beauty might be a by-product but it is not an explicit goal.
“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” Walker pointed out. “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine. I want to create elegant structures.”
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Thanks as always. Sergio [Sergio A. Mims]