The following was done via email. The pieces I chose to discuss include Trombone Concerto, the second Piano Sonata, both Violin Sonatas, Piano Concerto, Lilacs, and Orpheus — a collection that only scratches the surface of George Walker‘s immense output.
Ethan Iverson: I’ve read both the long interview with David Baker in The Black Composer Speaks and your own full-length book, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. For this interview I’d like to address questions that came to mind in response to these texts: in other words, since your background and the shape of your career is already pretty well documented, I’d like to fill in some extras.
First of all, I really enjoy your recordings of standard repertoire. However, they are all relatively recent. Are there any recordings of you playing in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, perhaps especially of concerti like Brahms 2 or Rachmaninoff 3?
George Walker: Unfortunately my performance of the 3rd Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto was not recorded. But my performance of the 2nd Brahms Piano Concerto with Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra at Eastman was recorded. My first performance of the Brahms with the Baltimore Symphony was not recorded. This was the better of the two performances. The Baltimore Symphony had played the work earlier in their season and their conductor, Reginald Stewart, a Canadian pianist, was better in this work than Hanson.
EI: Even if it is flawed, is there any chance that Brahms with Hanson might be available some day?
GW: The cello soloist in the slow movement plays a wrong rhythm that is unacceptable and the orchestra is not tightly controlled.
[UPDATE: 2014: The Brahms with Hanson is now available from Albany. Even better is a 1967 Emperor Concerto with Edwin London conducting. Walker’s impeccable and almost martial attitude suit the work perfectly. As far as I know, these two historical recordings are the only documents of a major 20th-century composer playing virtuoso core rep concertos at a professional level.]
EI: In the book you mention that you gave a recital at Rutgers every year for — what, over twenty years? 1969 – 1992, I believe? What kind of programs did you play? In particular, have you ever played contemporary music besides your own?
GW: I played programs of standard repertoire at Rutgers. However, when I taught at Smith College, I played works by composers on the faculty, the piano part in Schonberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the first piano part in Poulenc’s Two Piano Concerto.
EI: What would a Rutgers recital Walker program in, say, 1970, 1975 or 1980 consist of?
GW: The repertoire covered works from the 18th century to the 20th century- Scarlatti to Debussy and Prokovieff.
EI: When composing, do you still practice the piano? Or are there times when you never touched the keyboard for weeks on end?
GW: I never allow a day to pass without touching the piano. I have an obsession with exploring the relation between sound, touch, fingering and articulation in passages chosen from a few works of Haydn, Beethoven and Chopin. When I am not composing, I concentrate on practicing works that I plan to record.
EI: I’m pretty amazed that you knocked off note-perfect renditions of your extremely difficult piano pieces Spatials and Spektra in your mid-70s for an Albany record. They are an extremely rare example of high-modernism being played by the composer: as you know, most modernist composers cannot play their own music. Was there a lot of preparation for those recordings or were they “in the fingers,” so to speak?
GW: Practice for me is determining how I want to play each measure of a work. I often work with each hand separately. I work as hard in preparing my own music as I would playing Chopin or Liszt.
EI: You have interesting stories of hearing Serkin and Horowitz play. What about some of the other celebrated pianists? Do you remember hearing Rubinstien, Gould, Richter, Michelangeli, Arrau (or whoever else you care to mention). Who did you like and why, who didn’t you like and why?
GW: I have heard Rubinstein, Richter, Michelangeli, Arrau, Stravinsky, Curzon, Gieseking and many other pianists in concert. I am not a devotee of any of them. For me, the most important aspect of performance is the music, not the performer. Yet, there are so many aspects of a performance that can be evaluated and scrutinized. Some are basic, like tempos and dynamics. Other aspects are somewhat more subtle: phrasing, color and pedaling. Since I know most of the important works of the standard piano repertoire, I have become hypercritical.
EI: You have many works for your own instrument, but at the same time, you obviously were born to compose for the orchestra. Your first piece for full orchestra, Trombone Concerto, doesn’t work in piano reduction very well, as the varied instrumental colors are essential for the narrative of the piece. How could you write this without ever having tried it before? It’s such an assured work.
GW: I attempt to hear everything that I compose. When I orchestrate a piano score, every instrument is chosen after careful consideration in the same way as each note is selected. This is true even in tuttis where I think that most composers simply use a large number of instruments that are doubled to get a big sound. The Trombone Concerto is scored economically.
EI: I would call the style of your 50’s work like Trombone Concerto “American neo-classic,” is that fair?
GW: I don’t like the term “neo-classical” applied to my Trombone Concerto. This suggests a style with a content associated with a period. The first review of the Columbia recording described the work as bold. There are certainly no precedents for it in any previous work.
EI: Apologies! Is there any of your 50’s work besides the Trombone Concerto that does deserve that appellation, “neo-classical?”
GW: I really don’t like the term applied to any of my music. Even if I use a technique that is associated with that period, there will always be something different that cannot be related to it. Elevation for Organ suggests 16th century contrapuntal writing, but the final chord is far removed from that century.
EI: In the Baker interview you say that Copland and Stravinsky were influences, but that Hindemith was not to your taste. I have a soft spot for a lot of Mid-century post-Copland and post-Stravinsky composers. I’d be curious to get your take on who else you liked or not.
GW: I have cultivated the habit of determining what I like in works of many composers. Each work is subject to dissection from the viewpoint of technique and emotional impact. The simplicity of Appalachian Spring is affecting. But there is a particularly annoying procedure that is characteristic of the “Copland” style. Every student in a first year harmony course is instructed to allow the leading tone in a dominant to tonic cadence to move up a half step to the tonic. In much of Copland ‘s music the leading tone skips down to the 5th of the scale in a tonic chord. Boulanger would certainly not approve of this in any lessons that Copland had with her.
Ulysses Kay was one of several composers who went to the Soviet Union in 1958 with Copland during the Cold War. He found Copland’s habit of repeatedly pounding out the same chord when he was composing irritating. Carl Ruggles allegedly did the same thing to insure that this sound would withstand the onslaught of time.
I still have a particular fondness for Hindemith’s Symphony, Mathis der Maler. I saw the opera from which the orchestral work is derived. Hindemith’s judicious use of material from the opera, which is rather boring, is masterful.
There is much in Stravinsky that is striking. After his early Symphony in E flat, his works are consciously formatted with new material that is juxtaposed (that is without any connective elements). This approach deviates from the classical concept of organic development.
The 3rd Symphony of Roy Harris is a unique conception that I have also been fond of. But it is curious that a work beginning with the modal quality of Gregorian Chant and concluding with a pseudo fugue is hailed as “The Great ‘American’ Symphony.”
Samuel Barber’s First Symphony which I heard Ormandy conduct after its revision is still a patchy work. The First Essay, a shorter work, is more convincing. The motive, a half step ascending following by a minor 3rd descending, is a characteristic found in other works of his. The fugue in Barber’s Piano Sonata is exceptional. The use of ascending intervals suggest the rocket motive of the Mannheim School that was used by both Mozart and Beethoven. There are wonderful moments in the Barber’s Hermit Songs, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the Violin Concerto.
EI: The Trombone Concerto has a tricky last movement in a quick 6/8. These syncopations aren’t related to Afro-Cuban music, are they? You must have heard performers getting better at these over the years…
GW: The 3rd movement of the Trombone Concerto is devoid of any meter changes that occur with some frequency in the 1st movement. The accents that are employed displace the normality of the meter in a few instances. There are, however, two passages for solo wind instruments that can be unnerving for the players and the conductor.
EI: The last movement ends in clear F major, but the first movement, while in the key signature of F Minor, is much more dissonant, especially at the end, which lack thirds, having only a crunchy F/G-flat minor second. That dissonance sets up the opening melody of the slow movement in C.
GW: My intention was to make the 2nd and 3rd movements of my Trombone Concerto progressively simpler than the 1st movement. The 3rd movement is more consistently diatonic than the the 2nd movement.
EI: That’s so obvious now that you mention it. It’s like the skies are slowly clearing.
In a similar style is your first Sonata for Violin and Piano. Just to be clear, there is no relationship between this work and a previous student work, since withdrawn?
GW: There isn’t any connection between my my first violin and piano sonata that was composed as a graduation work from the Curtis Institute of Music and the published sonata. The student work was never published.
The Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano that is published has an unusual modal quality at the beginning of the first section of a one movement work. The third section, however, is very chromatic.
EI: You have a wonderful relationship to the violin, but you never played it yourself? Of course, now your son Gregory is an excellent violinist.
GW: I have never attempted to play any string instrument. It is still astonishing to me that my son, Gregory, can play some of the most difficult works that I have written with complete control, comprehension and with an intensity lacking in performances of the same works by other fine violinists. His recordings are true references.
EI: In the Baker interview you say that the end of Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano is one of your most successful passages. I agree that this wonderful piece is proportioned just right. I would have thought that this piece would have seen many performances over the years…is that true? (For whatever it’s worth, the score I checked out of NYPL was thoroughly fingered!)
GW: My Violin Sonata No. 1 has had quite a number of performances. A few weeks ago a student at the Boston Conservatory, who has included the work in her master’s thesis, is playing it. A Pew Foundation winner, Kristin Lee, played it last year in Philadelphia and played it again last week in Baltimore.
EI: An important part of the harmonic tension in this work is the move from D minor to F-sharp minor. Not all of your contemporaries would have used key signatures as much as you did in this era. Do you relate all the notes in this work to a key, no matter how abstracted?
GW: It was easier to use a key signature in the chromatic section of the Violin Sonata than to insert many accidentals.
EI: Mediant relationships also play a crucial part in the slightly earlier Piano Sonata No. 2, which many have called a masterpiece. I have the score to the two-piano version as well, has that ever been played? Are you happy with the amplification?
GW: There haven’t been many recent performances of the two-piano version of the Piano Sonata No. 2. that I have been aware of. But for many years a two-piano team, Delphin and Romaine, played the work. They also arranged a commission from Purdue University for my Music for Two Pianos. The two-piano version of the Piano Sonata No. 2 is quite satisfactory.
EI: In the slow movement in B Minor, you write a sustained sonority that many modern jazz pianists love. We’d call it “E-flat over B.” You write it (enharmonically of course) B, D#, G, A#. What would you call it?
GW: Your observation about the chord in the 3rd movement is very interesting. With “g” as the root, the harmony is a ninth chord in first inversion on the submediant in b minor. The 7th is missing from the structure.
EI: Interesting. Of course, a jazz pianist might use that for G dominant. But I don’t hear this use as a dominant function — to me, the first 6 bars are really a fairly pure B minor, almost a pedal over B.
GW: The first two measures of the 3rd movement are quite chromatic. The bass in the 2nd measures obviates the implication of a pedal point. The duration of the chord B-D#-G-A# suggests a cadence. But the B, the lowest note of the chord in the next four measures does create a pedal point.
EI: The Piano Sonata No. 2 seems to use the minimum space needed for the expression of ideas.
GW: The shape and duration of the variations of the first movement are dictated by the length of the ground bass which is present in only three measures. The sonata is compact because there are no unnecessary notes that would extend the focus of a work that was intended to be essentially triadic.
EI: It’s rather a shock to confront your twelve-tone piano piece Spatials from 1960 after your earlier, much more melodious music. You mention the revelation of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in the book. What is your relationship to Schoenberg? To Webern?
GW: Spatials represents another aspect of my interest in variations. There are also rhythmic elements and the use of clusters that are as important as the concentration on a strict employment of the 12 tone technique. The rhythmic qualities and the disjunct writing that encompasses every octave of the keyboard require an athleticism on the part of the pianist that is not to be found in Stravinsky or Berg. The Webern Variations for piano are essentially placid.
EI: I have sometimes read that there was peer pressure to become a 12-tone composer. Even Stravinsky and Copland capitulated! Did you also feel that kind of pressure?
GW: Composers in the 1940s and in subsequent years wanted to be a part of the avant-garde. I recognized the limitations of 12 tone music and even wrote about my determinations. It’s rather amusing to know that composers like Boulez decided to make adjustments to a system that academics had formalized.
EI: A very attractive piece that seems informed but not imprisoned by 12-tone music is the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Can you explain something about your personal synthesis of dodecaphonic procedures? Obviously, you still believe in lyricism, if more abstracted than before.
GW: The Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 is not a 12 tone work in conception or actuality. After the extended introduction of the first movement. I wanted to establish a long lyrical line in the violin part and an unusual accompaniment in the piano. This part consists of figurations played staccato that contrast with the legato line of the violin.
EI: I haven’t seen the most recent printing, but surely you are aware that the recording is quite different than the GWB edition, especially in the first movement.
GW: My 2nd Sonata for Violin and Piano was commissioned and premiered at the Kennedy Center by Sanford Allen. The performance was rather unconvincing and there had been some errors in the score which we corrected before the performance. When MMB Music decided to engrave the work, these mistakes had been corrected and other changes made in the sonata. The copyist was so painfully slow that I had ample time to evaluate my decisions.
EI: In the next movement, a perpetual moto has 5s and 6s in quick contrast. Any advice on dealing with polyrhythms?
GW: The focus must be on maintaining the quarter note pulse while keeping the 16ths in the groups of five and six even.
EI: The exciting repeating ostinatos have nothing to do with most highly chromatic music.
GW: I did consider making the 2nd movement a perpetual moto. This type of composition has by its very nature a limited musical content if it is primarily for a solo instrument. I attempted to inject some interest in the piano part because the violin part is a pedal point in some of the sections.
EI: The two Walker Violin Sonatas are two pieces I immediately loved, yet their languages are starkly different. In a way, I honestly don’t’ see that much relationship between the two. Yet they came from the same musical mind. Do you see them as having similar aesthetic thumbprints?
GW: There really isn’t any connection because the compositional objectives were totally different. The 2nd Sonata quotes a spiritual at the end of the 3rd movement which ends quietly. The ending of the 1st Sonata is very intense. The unusual aspect of the 1st Sonata is the fugal content.
EI: Your Piano Concerto is a major addition to an already crowded area of the repertoire. How long did it take you to compose?
GW: I don’t recall exactly how long it took; probably about 3 or 4 months. The compositional process went extremely smoothly as did the orchestration. I have never changed anything in the work: not a note, a rhythm or dynamic even after it was performed and recorded. The Bi-Centennial of 1976 was an extraordinary year for me. I received and completed three commissioned works, my Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra, Music for Brass (Sacred and Profane) and the Piano Concerto while teaching at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Delaware.
EI: Many 20th-century percussive piano concertos sound like warmed-over Bartók or Prokofiev, but you have used that general idiom to personal effect.
GW: I have not mentioned anywhere that this was my second piano concerto. My first piano concerto was composed during the summer of 1947 when I was living with my parents in Washington, DC. It was destroyed shortly after I completed it. With my second attempt at this form, I was determined to create something different. The classical concept of having a single instrument opposing a greater force–in this case, a more powerful orchestra than has been usually employed– is obvious in the first two movements of the concerto. In the third movement, that begins as a fugue, the subject alternates between a statement in the piano and its appearance in the orchestra.
EI: I sense an overarching sadness to all three movements. Was there something traumatic in your private life that came out in this music?
GW: Adolphus Hailstork, the composer, was in the audience for the premiere of my Piano Concerto by the Minneapolis Orchestra. I was amused when he remarked that this was a violent work emanating from such a nice person.
EI: In the first movement, slashing, angular mixed-meter phrases are constantly contrasted with moments of introspection.
GW: The contrasting section represents the secondary material that one would find in a conventional sonata form.
EI: The second movement uses Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude” as an almost entirely disguised source. You have said that the first part is the tune is “in augmentation,” but what exactly does that mean here? (I haven’t seen the score, that would probably help, but when I’m using just my ears I’m a bit baffled at how the borrowing works technically, although the music is certainly compelling.)
GW: Each note in Ellington’s song is present in note values at least twice as long as they are in the original tune. The rhythm of the original tune is non-existent.
EI: This isn’t the only Duke song you’ve quoted over the years. In a movement of Guido’s Hand “Satin Doll” can barely be perceived through a maze of atonality. Did you ever meet Ellington? What is your relationship to his music?
GW: I never met Ellington. He was born in Washington, DC, my hometown. I received a Christmas card from him shortly before he died. It read, “God is Love.” I assume that he had probably heard about me. Incorporating fragments of his music in my scores was an expansion of what I had already done with folksongs and spirituals.
EI: In the finale, varied percussion works closely with brilliant toccata-like passages of the piano soloist. When you hear run-through of something as complex as this for the first time, is the orchestration usually successful, like you heard in your mind before performance? Has there even been a time when you ran up with a red pencil in rehearsal, saying, “Let me redo that dynamic!” or “Can we change marimba to vibraphone…”?
GW: The brilliance of certain orchestral passages is often more evident in recordings that in the concert hall. I am primarily concerned about the tonal accuracy of the sound that I want to hear. I never substitute one instrument for another. I will find it necessary occasionally to increase a dynamic marking because a note is too soft in a performance.
During the first rehearsal of my Sinfonia No. 3 with Andrey Boreyko conducting the Detroit Symphony, I heard a a note in a chord that surprised me. When I asked Boreyko to substitute another note in the chord, he exclaimed that it didn’t sound right. I insisted that this was the sound that I wanted and that it was indeed correct. He had no choice in capitulating to my request.
EI: The premiere and first recording was done by the late Natalie Hinderas, who you had known for many years and was the most important pianist for black composers in the 1970’s. You talk a little bit about her in your book and the say that the newer recording by the wonderful Rochelle Sennet “extends the legacy of Natalie Hinderas.” Could you write a few more words now about Hinderas, perhaps about her qualities as a person and a musician?
GW: Natalie was completely unaffected as a person. Her musical gift was extraordinary. Although she was small in stature, she was capable of playing with power and with complete technical control of music from any period. She grasped all of the aspects of my Piano Concerto intuitively.
Her death was most untimely as her career had begun to blossom with more major engagements after her success in playing the Ginastera Piano Concerto and the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato of Schumann work in successive years with Boulez.
EI: I mostly made my own selections for discussion except for Orpheus, which was your idea. As soon as I listened, I understood why: it is a very attractive and moving work. In the book you parse Orpheus more extensively than most of your other compositions:.
Episodes are announced by a speaker as the myth unfolds. The narrator assumes several roles. By changing the quality and tone of his voice, he represents Orpheus, Pluto, and the father of Orpheus, Oeagrus..
The wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice suggested the incorporation of a dance episode. This idea presented itself after I recalled a segment in the film Zorba the Greek. In a scene on a beach, Anthony Quinn is asked by his “boss” to teach him to dance. But I did not attempt to give this section of the score an ethnic quality..
The music begins with an oboe solo accompanied by pizzicato octaves in the strings in an irregular pulse. It becomes more frenetic, accelerating into a fugato. The termination of this section presages the tragedy that follows — the death of Eurydice. Orpheus encounters Pluto in the underworld. After Orpheus receives permission to leave the underworld with his wife, he violates the instruction given to him by Pluto. In looking back he causes Eurydice to vanish “to become a shade.” Eurydice is briefly represented by a woman’s voice as she cries out for Orpheus upon her return to the underworld..
The introductory chords played on a harp at the beginning of Orpheus and its end suggest the use of a lyre. The narrative that I wrote underscores the relationship between father and son in the beginning of the work and at its end in addition to the mythic portrayal of Orpheus and Eurydice. A four-note motive derived from the syllables of Eurydice (two short and two long accents in the Latin pronunciation) is used in the orchestra and spoken by members of the orchestra as Orpheus searches for his bride. It has a pathetic and distressed quality. The narrator’s agonized voice in the final section laments, “My son, my son.” In this version Orpheus is torn to bits by Thracian women. A single harp note, a tear, is repeated to bring closure to this tragedy “as it has been preserved and imparted to us.” The premiere of Orpheus was in 1994.
It’s a very dark story. I’m unaware of any previous musical interpretations of the trip to Hades in search of Eurydice then connecting to Orpheus’s death by Thracian women.
GW: This was the version that I decided to use.
EI: You write, “The narrative that I wrote underscores the relationship between father and son.” My wife knows much more about myth than me. She says, “Orpheus was the son of Apollo, who represents art and was the inventor of the lyre. It makes sense to bookend the piece with the beautiful and tragic father-son relationship. Apollo was a good father, albeit an absent one. He gave Orpheus the gift of song. And when Orpheus dies, it is at the hands of his father’s enemies, the Bacchae. Orpheus represents the Apollonian vision of formal beauty, ultimately destroyed by the primitive, ecstatic energies of Dionysian art.”
GW: After the narrator provides the synopsis of the myth, the first intervals played on the harp are meant to suggest that Orpheus, who has been given a lyre by his father, is discovering how to play the instrument in a halting fashion. His father must have been greatly saddened by the failure of Orpheus to bring his wife back to life and by the tragic death of his son.
EI: You played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the legendary conductor Dean Dixon. Do you believe that the second movement is Orpheus pleading to the furies?
GW: This is an interesting allusion. Beethoven indicates that the first chords in the piano part should be played “molto contabile.” The last entrance of the piano has a more pleading quality to it. In my version, however, Orpheus is appealing directly to Hades. The placidity of the chords in the Beethoven do not convey the emotional aspect of a plea for the release of one’s spouse.
EI: When hearing the narrator at the top of your Orpheus, I naturally thought of Jean Cocteau’s lines at the top of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. However, your work is not at all ironic in the manner of Stravinsky and Cocteau.
GW: The Stravinsky work is too coolly stylized for my taste. Greek myths are earthy, bloody and emotionally intense.
EI: At first I wasn’t that interested in Lilacs because I had heard the Sessions and Hindemith settings of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and neither had moved me. But your lovely version is rather spare, and the poetry never is obscured by “compositional design.” They are rather direct settings, I think, with not too-obvious word-painting.
GW: The settings of the Whitman by Sessions and Hindemith employ a chorus. Ozawa, who recorded the Sessions work, was supposedly very fond of it. The bird motive was for me the most attractive part of the work. Hindemith’s setting has an off-putting Germanic quality to it.
The commission that I received from the Boston Symphony was for an eight minute work. It was only supposed to be an appropriate memorial to a renowned tenor, Roland Hayes, who had been a part of the Boston community for a long time. But Lilacs has a duration of 16 minutes and is much more complex than it may appear to be. Many of the syllables in the text are embellished. There are suggestions of breezes infiltrating the area where there are lilacs, of the gloom of night and of bees buzzing in the beginning of the third section, a personal recollection from a visit with my parents to relatives in Virginia.
EI: This is the work that won you a Pulitzer, and your description of the bad food at the short awards ceremony in your book made me laugh out loud.
GW: It was truly dormitory food in the worst sense. Columbia University, the site of the Pulitzer ceremony, has been adamant in its determination to avoid sensationalizing the occasion.
EI: Now, it seems to me that Lilacs is a tonal piece. Especially the in the opening movement: when the text is “mourn” and “mourned” there is a fair amount of B-flat minor, and somehow I hear the last bars as C-sharp major, although that is certainly debatable.
GW: Much of Lilacs is atonal. One can identify a particular chordal structure, but it is not related to any specific key in its function.
EI: In both the agitated second movement and the lyrical third, I hear a lot of octatonic scale with “borrowed” notes.
GW: Several persons have commented on my use of an octatonic scale in various works like Canvas for Wind Ensemble, Narrators and Chorus. An excellent doctoral dissertation was written about the work by the saxophonist who played the excerpt of “I’m Confessing” in the 3rd movement in its premiere. You can read it online. (Octatonic Pitch Structure and Motivic Organization by Ryan Nelson). Nelson teaches at Northwestern University.
EI: Nelson’s dissertation must be looked at by anyone curious about your work habits and the process of how a commission comes to fruition in the modern world.
Your mother was a singer. Have you ever seriously sung yourself? You mention in the book that at least some of your compositional ideas have come from singing in the shower.
GW: My mother only sang bits of music at home. I don’t believe that she ever sang in a choir. But she did have a very pleasant voice. Neither my sister or I could make that claim. I mentioned that the motive used in Pageant and Proclamation came to me when I was in the shower. I cannot explain why I sang those five notes. They are certainly not to be found in that rhythm in any composition that I would have known.
EI: At the least, you unquestionably write for the voice, not against it. I’d like to hear a male singer in Lilacs someday.
GW: I am waiting for the final proof of a second recording of Lilacs made last October by a tenor, Albert Lee. The effect of having the vocal part sung by a tenor is quite startling. The intensity present in the original recording by a soprano, Faye Robinson, was compelling in part because of the obvious effort expended to project the high register of the part. The new recording captures the melancholy of the text with an ease and naturalness that I could not have anticipated.
EI: The fourth and final movement of Lilacs references birdsong: there’s chirping, chattering, and warbling. Then, the set up of the return to “lilacs” is fabulous, a simple B becomes a long minor second with the addition of C. The birds are stilled and we begin to introspect about the fragrant flower again. It’s a good example of narrative control in nearly atonal music.
GW: The text of that stanza seemed to dictate an introduction that was atmospheric. I was fortunate in being able to suggest the recurrence of the first verse of the poem with the motive that initiates the work.
EI: Thank you for your time. I was rather rushed in preparing this interview, but will keep listening to and learning from your extensive works list in future. The standard question that closes all interviews is, of course, “What’s next?” You seem to be very busy, perhaps busier than ever.
GW: I have enjoyed the opportunity of discussing my music with you. I hope to be able to record some standard piano repertoire at the end of the summer.
George Walker Triptych:
1) Interview with George Walker
3) Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)