Lyric for Strings
December 16, 2018: Emerson Quartet
George Walker’s long life consisted of a string of outstanding achievements. After graduating from Oberlin College as a piano and organ student, he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music—composition with Rosario Scalero, teacher of Samuel Barber, and piano with Rudolf Serkin—and became the school’s first African-American graduate. He was also the first black instrumentalist to give a recital, his debut, at New York’s Town Hall and to appear as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He toured Europe under the auspices of National Concert Artists—their first African-American instrumentalist—then began teaching before beginning his doctoral studies at Eastman. Awarded Fulbright and John Hay Whitney fellowships (the Whitney’s first composer recipient), Walker studied in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger.
Walker taught at the Dalcroze School of Music, the New School for Social Research, Smith College (first black tenure recipient), University of Colorado, Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and University of Delaware. His longest professorship, however, was at Rutgers University (1969–92), where he chaired the music department.
Composing remained an equally important facet of Walker’s career, evidenced by over ninety published works to his credit, ranging from orchestral pieces and chamber music to choral works, songs, and piano pieces. Highlighting Walker’s remarkable list of awards and honors is the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music—he was the first African-American composer so honored—for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Walker also received commissions from myriad other organizations, such as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center.
As recently as 2013 Walker was still having works premiered—his Movements for Cello and Orchestra that November with the Sinfonia da Camera led by Ian Hobson at the University of Illinois and his Bleu for Violin Unaccompanied at the Library of Congress the previous April. In 2012 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra premiered his Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands,” a joint commission with the Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and National symphonies. That May he gave the commencement address at the Eastman School of Music, also receiving an honorary doctoral degree where he had already earned a doctorate as a student over half a century earlier. Later that month he received the prestigious Aaron Copland Award from ASCAP.
Lyric for Strings originated as the second movement of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, written in 1946 after he graduated from Curtis and dedicated to his grandmother, who had recently died. Under the title Lament, the piece received its premiere that year on a radio concert of Curtis’s student orchestra conducted by Seymour Lipkin. The official premiere took place the following year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., by the National Gallery Orchestra conducted by Richard Bales. Retitled at the request of the publisher, Lyric for Strings became one of the most frequently performed pieces by a living American composer.
The piece’s origin as a slow movement in a string quartet and its poignant strains tinged with Romanticism bring to mind Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings and the Curtis connection of both composers. Walker’s Lyric for Strings, however, stands beautifully on its own. Falling motives and sustained tones set a mournful mood at the outset. The motion increases with contrapuntal lines weaving their way over a sustained pedal tone until gentle chordal iterations briefly arrest the flow. The resumption of the entwined lyrical lines eventually comes to an impassioned peak, now with low, jabbing chordal interjections of utter anguish. As the passage ebbs and quiet chords sound again, the gentle earlier flow resumes. The piece concludes somberly yet with a sense of peace.
© Jane Vial Jaffe