Wednesday, April 17, 2013

George Walker - a Self-Styled "Great American Composer"

When Albany Records was in full swing of their several-CD tribute to the music of George Walker (b. 1922), the first Black Classical composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music (1996; Lilacs for voice and orchestra), I'd like to think that it was George who insisted upon the prefix "Great American" for the titles.  Therefore, the volumes come with headings such as Great American Orchestral Music vols. 1-3, Great American Chamber Music, Great American Concert Music, etc.  Rather than sputtering in confusion and crying out "Who does he think he is?!" I choose to take these titles as a question: what is "Great American Music", anyways?  Is Walker just self-aggrandizing or does he believe his music reflects a legitimate concept?

My mind immediately flits to the old idea of the Great American Novel, a mythical beast tamed by the likes of John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, and later parodied by Philip Roth with The Great American Novel, featuring the Patriot League of baseball and a Communist conspiracy.  Wikipedia's definition has it as "distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set."  That's just fine for narrative art, but how would that be accomplished in an abstract medium such as music?  I can't place too many non-operatic examples, so let's loosen this puppy a bit to fit "the zeitgeist of America through classical music."  Unfortunately we've still got a ways to go.  I've long thought that great composer write for all time rather than their specific time, being aware of their context and transcending it.  

When I think "Great American Music" I think of Charles Ives, a totally unique and enormously influential genius whose work precedes many defining traits of what would become the American classical vernacular in the middle of the 20th century (a vernacular in which Walker began).  Ives's sound is one of enormous vigor, using big, resonant, quasi-tonal harmonies to evoke the vast expanse of our Manifest Destiny (however immorally we acquired it).  It's that particular trait that held over into the younger generations, and almost every composer to gain real traction in the 40's and 50's focused on big open sonorities, matching vigor with a serious lyricism.  You get the sense that this is the real deal, that other musics are just messing around.  This tough and tender combination is what I find so endearing about American classical music, and holds my love for these composers with a tender iron grip.  George Walker fits both those criteria, but developed an effective and original way of exploring them in a career spanning seven decades.

Walker initially gained fame as a piano prodigy, entering Oberlin Conservatory at age 14, moving to Curtis Institute of Music and eventually getting his doctorate from Eastman School of Music.  As with most established and ignored composers I'm not sure what occurred in his life to keep him from the limelight, aside from his race, which was still a considerable issue in his early career.  He did get some recognition for the piece that remains his most popular, Lyric for Strings:

You may have noticed this performance is by a string quartet rather than a string orchestra, and that's because this piece began its life as the middle movement of his String Quartet no. 1, which is a truly fantastic piece.  It's a fine sister piece to Barber's Adagio for Strings, which also began as the middle movement of a string quartet; the difference is that Walker's outer movements are just as good as the gooey center.  This piece is from 1946, one of his earliest great pieces, and you can easily leapfrog from that piece to his Piano Sonata no. 1 (1953):

That's Walker playing the piano there; his reputation isn't a dirty rat lier in the least.  Here we see both the criteria I'd mentioned, elaborated upon with enormous skill and sincerity.  His harmonic language takes a lot from composers before him such as Harris, Schuman, Piston, and other "New Romantics" as Gerard Schwarz would call them.  The second and third movements are actually folk-song settings (the former a variations set).  Also, in the first movement we see Walker pointing towards a very sophisticated kind of piano writing that would crystallize in his works from the 80's.  I'll demonstrate with the first page of his still-unrecorded Bauble:

(Click for larger view)

In the lower staves we see thundering lines, vaulting across octaves and creating big harmonic spans in their wake.  These effects are more pronounced in counterpoint, and the piece of his that really explodes this technique is the Piano Sonata no. 4, a really fantastic piece that's on a CD with the two string quartets (available on Amazon, BTW).  Despite their intimidating presence on the page these lines retain a certain singability, and their's harmonies are often jazz-friendly; this piece in particular wouldn't phase me as an improvisation.  I have yet to find hard evidence of a jazz influence upon his works, but pieces like Bleu for unaccompanied violin might be clues:

In the process of reigning in this review, I realize that my previous assessment of "Great American Music" may have been too simplistic, because there is a heck of a lot of variety in our classical scene and Walker has a distinct identity.  It's more that American composers tend to refer back to those concepts despite their disparity.  And I'd like to think the hallmark of American art should be rugged individuality rather than a single National image, and plenty of composers have that, too.  Walker fits both kinds, and that's pretty neat; he's kept on chugging, too, and I'll leave you with a piece from the 2000s as a tribute to that.  All in all, I'd be wary of anybody who walks down the street calling himself a "Great American" something, but in Walker's case I think he's earned it.


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