George Walker: Sinfonia no. 3

performed by Sinfonia Varsovia under Ian Hobson

More and more, I realize the power of music—the power of the interval, of rhythm, of being exact in what I put down as what I meant to hear.

George Walker, Strings Magazine

(cover image by Tim de Groot)

George Theophilus Walker was born on June 27, 1922 in Washington, D.C. to a father from Jamaica who became a physician. He took his first piano lessons from his mother, and had his first public recital at the age of 14. In that same year, he was admitted to Oberlin, graduated at 18, and admitted to Curtis, where he studied with Rudolf Serkin, as well as chamber music with Primrose and Piatigorsky, and composition with Rosario Scolero, teacher of Samuel Barber.

He graduated in 1945 as the first African American from the school. He was also the first black instrumentalist to appear with many orchestras, including performing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. He entered Eastman for his doctorate in 1955, and became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from that institution. He later studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for for his song cycle Lilacs, on poems of Walk Whitman, making him the first African American to win the award.

With a career like that, how is this guy not better known? What an amazing resume! You can read some recentish articles about the composer here from Strings Magazine or less recently here from the Guardian. They’re very compelling depictions of this too-little-heard composer.

George Walker is actually still alive, currently 95 years old. If you look him up in iTunes or elsewhere, you’ll see that many of his albums include his contribution in two areas. An album will have the performance of a piece he composed, and also a performance of a concert, from Brahms or Beethoven, etc. I’ve never seen this before, but with at least a number of the albums I looked at, he appears as composer for some works and soloist for others. What an immense talent.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across today’s work, but because I remember reading very little about Walker, I assume I must have just come across it on YouTube, or read it referenced somewhere and went off to look for it.

The work is in three movements and lasts a total of around 14 minutes. It belongs to a string of sinfonias, apparently, there now being a fifth that has, as of the above Strings Magazine article, still not been performed, but that was a few months ago (in summer 2017). That aside, there’s extremely little available about this work. The iTunes release didn’t include the digital booklet, and this AllMusic review says very little about the piece. Here’s a photo of the composer attending a rehearsal of the piece at Juilliard with James DePriest on the podium.

The first movement, and the longest of the three, immediately sets the tone for the entire symphony. As compact and brief a work as this is, and coming from who looks to be a quiet, old man (already more than a decade ago!), the piece is astonishingly powerful. It’s a piece that roars from the get-go. The first gesture hits you in the chest, no soft introduction, no swell or growing from nothing, but what follows it is sparsely tense. The initial blast, the big bang of the opening, seems to be enough to propel the expansion of the entire rest of the movement (or the entire piece), and call me crazy, but I feel like we hear fragments of that, like shrapnel, in the rest of the work, be it the notes, the contours, the harmonies. Regardless, it’s remarkably powerful.

What results from that initial explosion isn’t (necessarily) violent, or cacophonous, but is filled with forward drive, like an unstoppable expansion, full of shimmers and glows, and a characteristic, brassy crunch, an almost primal growl. It’s remarkable.

The second movement, though, while in the same world, is largely pristine, quieter, with passages dominated more by colors from individual instruments (brass or woodwinds) rather than the entire orchestra as a whole. Even in this slow movement, though, we’re not completely void of some more explosive moments, like echoes from the previous movement.

The finale is the shortest of the three, and follows politely enough the quiet end of the previous movement, but it doesn’t last. Again, the music is abruptly tumultuous, rawly powerful, with unrelenting, near-terrifying force. The sense of tension, of conflict, here is unmistakably apparent. The music jumps without warning between eerie stillness and volcanic outbursts, but not without purpose. Despite being such a small work, there’s a breathtaking sense of expansiveness. And despite the brilliance of color and depth of texture, the music is always pristinely clear, taut, perfectly sculpted. It’s exactly what the composer expresses in the quote that opens this article.

I can’t offer much more than that, except to say that it’s a magnificent, wildly exciting, very powerful piece of music, unrelenting, raw, but exquisitely crafted. It’s pieces like this that make me thankful for YouTube and classical music forums, where “You Might Like” features or mentions of this or that piece lead to extremely satisfying discoveries such as this. I’ll say I’ve never heard anything else of Walker’s, even though by this point I’ve bought a few more CDs of his works. After a piece like this, I look forward to hearing more.

This is the last symphonic work in our American symphony series, and what a bang it was. There’s one more work, a string quartet, coming tomorrow, to wrap up the series before we move on to other things, so do stay tuned for all of that, and thanks so much for reading.

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