Lyric for Strings

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            An iconic figure among black American composers who worked in the classical field, Walker excelled marvelously in difficult times for men such as he.  He was a native of Washington, DC, the son of a Jamaican immigrant. The first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, he was educated at some of the most prestigious American schools:  Oberlin, Eastman, Curtis, and the American Conservatory, Fontainebleau.  Winner of Fulbright, Guggenheim, MacDowell, Whitney, and Rockefeller fellowships, he received commissions from outstanding orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.  An accomplished pianist, he gave his debut recital at New York’s Town Hall, and performed Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra two weeks later—an auspicious beginning of a performing career.  Later, he toured Europe extensively.  After receiving the first doctorate given to an African-American from the Eastman school, he taught at several universities, including the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Honored, respected, and admired, he lived a long life, dying in 2018 at the age of ninety-six.

            His œuvre includes over ninety compositions in most of the standard genres, but like some other composers, his very first effort was a smashing success.  The String Quartet no. 1 (1946) achieved immediate recognition, and remained one of the most-performed works by a black composer.   Its musical nature and subsequent history bears somewhat of a similarity to Samuel Barber’s evergreen Adagio for Strings (1936) in that both works were composed by young composers, sons of physicians in well-educated families; were originally the second (slow) movements in their respective first string quartets; and both works were recognized early on as wonderfully suited to performance by a full string orchestra.  In the latter version, Walker later named his movement Lyric for Strings.

            The grief imbued in this work is not only in the mind of the listener, for Walker composed it with his deep feelings for his grandmother, who had passed away the previous year.  He entitled the work first, Lament, before changing the title.  While as a typical young post-war composer, he naturally explored a variety of musical styles, include the avant-garde fads of the time, he remained primarily a neo-romantic—like his fellow Curtis graduate, Barber.  And like Barber’s famous Adagio, Walker’s work is characterized by long spun out melodic lines that weave in and out with emotional sinuousness.   But, having observed that, it is pellucidly clear that this marvelous composition is completely George Walker’s.