Friday, February 6, 2009

George Theophilus Walker

On the evening of January 20th this year, I was listening to PBS while sitting in the parking lot of the Presbyterian Church waiting for one of my regular customers to come out from her board meeting.

I sat, enthralled, as I listened to composition after composition either performed or written by black musicians, some of which I'd never heard. I took a couple of notes, but mainly I just listened and enjoyed.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to share a few with you.

This first name, George Theophilus Walker, was a complete stranger to me, so don't be a bit surprised if you are in the same boat. Born in 1922, he has had a long and distinguished career as a concert pianist, a composer, and teacher. He earned a doctorate in music, and has had several honorary degrees conferred upon him since by other educational institutions.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned Dr. Walker to compose a piece around Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1996, the first African American to do so.

What is most amazing to me is that I was unable to find - after several hours of searching - a recording of this to share with you. Altho this was the second musical composition commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to win the Pulitzer - the first one performed again in several encore presentations and a recording made, the only logical explanation I can personally accept for the lack of promotion for "Lilacs" is that today's marketplace does not support contemporary classical music.

Mike Wallace, I believe it was, conducted what must have been (certainly sounded like!) an obligatory and somewhat distasteful interview following the Pulitzer announcement. I'd share it with you, but it upsets me. Many interruptions, sometimes mid-word. Disgraceful! The only reason I'm even talking about it now is that it did provide a little background and insight into some of Dr. Walker's thought processes while composing the piece.

Another blogger friend of mine, Steve, intends to do a post on Abraham Lincoln a bit later this month. I'll link it for you when he publishes. This should tie in quite nicely with his, I would think.

The best link I could find to read more about Dr. Walker is this one. There were many citations in Wiki and other locations where I tried to dig a little deeper, but most that I tried to follow were either deadends or of little consequence.

I'm feeling more than a little frustrated and inadequate with this post, but am going to hit "Publish" before another minute goes by.


Craig Peihopa said...

No need to feel inadequate with this post, you gave it scope and perspective I feel. What a wonderful accomplishment and seemingly what a humble individual. Amazing to me, how people can reach out and touch the lives of others. Wonderful post dear lady.

Goldenrod said...

You're very kind, Craig. I wanted to do so much MORE! I just couldn't believe that I was unable to locate a single recording - it only lasts 16 minutes - of that Pulitzer Prize-winning piece he composed that was based on Walt Whitman's poem, the one that most people think was a direct response to Lincoln's assassination.

I found several photographs of him, but they would have been taken when he was much younger. He's in his upper 80's now! I just felt so inadequate. Thank you again for your kind comments. They make me feel a bit better.

Frank J. Oteri said...

Actually, Summit Records issued a recording of George Walker's Pulitzer Prize winning composition Lilacs ten years ago. (Type "George Walker Lilacs" in Amazon and you should be able to find it; your Blogger account won't let me post the link to it.)

But perhaps even more worth tracking down are a series of three all-George Walker discs issued over the past two years on Albany Records, all of which have been recorded under Walker's personal supervision and also all featuring his own program notes. These discs each have as part of their title, "Great American Music": e.g. Great American Orchestral Music (Albany/Troy 1061, issued in 2008), Great American Chamber Music (Albany/Troy 1082, issued in 2009), and Great American Orchestral Music, Volume 2 (Albany/Troy 1178, just issued: March 2010). A highlight for me has been the Son Sonora Quartet's extraordinarily sensitive performances of Walker's two string quartets on the chamber music disc, which I feel completely overshadow the performance of String Quartet No. 2 on the aforementioned Summit disc. And the latest volume of the series, which as luck would have it I'm listening to at this very moment and plan to write about for the American Music Center's web magazine NewMusicBox (which I edit), features a wonderful performance of Walker's brand new Violin Concerto (and the soloist is none other than George's eldest son Gregory Walker).

Indeed not enough attention has been paid to George Walker and his important contributions to the repertoire. But this series of recordings is a step in the right direction.

Goldenrod said...

Frank, your extensive and informative comments have been gratefully received by me and will be noted, I'm sure, by others who Google his name and see my post listed there.

Thank you for adding a valuable contribution to my blog.

intertwined said...

I myself find the frustration in not finding more information on his personal life or on his music ANYWHERE. It's absolutely beautiful, yet so rare to find!