George Walker and ‘Lyric for Strings’: ‘the reaction has been astounding’

George Walker

Ahead of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in April 2018 of his Lyric for Strings, composer George Walker recalled other memorable performances of this work, as well as its origins.

In an interview recorded for radio station WDCB-FM with journalist Dennis Polkow and Music Director Riccardo Muti, Walker observed how "reaction to this work" — regarded as his most popular — "has been something that I could never have anticipated." (Walker died a few months, then 96, later on Aug. 23.)

In the 1970s, when the New York Philharmonic performed Lyric for Strings, under Paul Freeman (the founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta), Walker said, "I was astounded after the conclusion of the piece, absolute silence [followed] for what seemed to be almost 20 seconds. And then there was like a thunderclap of applause."

Walker also remembered a Chicago concert conducted by Andrew Davis:"For a six-minute piece, you get a standing ovation each time. Again, it was astounding. The reaction to this work has been something that I could never have anticipated."

In another memorable program, Lyric for Strings was performed on a Martin Luther King Day concert, "when Maestro Muti was the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he programmed the work," Walker said. "It was the first that the Philadelphia Orchestra had done a work of mine, and it was wonderful to be present there to hear it. It was a very intense performance of the piece."

Muti recalled his first encounter with Lyric for Strings. "I was very impressed by the counterpoint, the sense of the melody, the sense of the harmony, and this beautiful, endless line from the beginning to the end. This is a short piece, about five or six minutes, but written not only with a real, deep knowledge of music, but with the heart. I love this piece very much, but in a way this [score] is so touching, so sincere, so honest, it’s so beautiful and sounds so well."

Lyric for Strings dates from Walker’s earliest days as a composer, written while he was a graduate student at the Curtis Institute of Music and identified himself primarily as a pianist. It received its premiere by the Curtis student orchestra. “I never played a string instrument,” Walker once said, “but somehow strings have always fascinated me.”

After graduating from high school at 14, Walker attended Oberlin with the idea of becoming a concert pianist. He made his recital debut at Town Hall in New York City in 1945, and just two weeks later, played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

But he began writing music while at Curtis, where he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin, fearing, and eventually confirming, that as an African American, he would have a hard time getting engagements.

Nadia Boulanger, the celebrated teacher and famed discoverer of composing talent, was the first to see his promise as a composer. In the end, it is as a composer that Walker made his mark in a long and distinguished career. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim, MacDowell Colony, Fulbright and Rockefeller foundations and served on the faculties of Smith College, the University of Colorado, Peabody Conservatory, the University of Delaware and Rutgers University.

In 1996, more than a half century after he started composing, Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Lilacs, his setting for soprano and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d."

Even after Walker had scored great success as a composer, he continued his life as a pianist; he titled his 2009 memoir as Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. Playing the piano is something of a family tradition; his father, who immigrated from Jamaica and enjoyed a long career as a physician, taught himself to play piano as a pastime, and his sister Frances Walker-Slocum became a professor of piano at the Oberlin Conservatory.

Lyric for Strings began as the second movement, marked Molto adagio, of a string quartet. Walker had just started to compose this music when he learned that his grandmother had died, and it became a memorial for her. A string orchestra version was premiered on the radio under the title Lament. The score, published as Lyric for Strings, has an eloquent theme that carries the piece to its climax, and then ushers in a mood of welcome serenity.

Like many of his works, Lyric for Strings reflects his affinity for indigenous American music. ''There's no way I can conceal my identity as a black composer," he said in an 1982 interview with the New York Times. "I have a very strong feeling for the Negro spiritual and have also drawn from American folk songs, and popular and patriotic tunes, which I believe merit inclusion in serious compositions."