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Sinfonia No. 4

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Walker
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Jessica Lang Dance; with Leila Josefowicz, violin / From Adams to Copland May 16 - 17, 2014
© Thomas May

It's been 18 years since George Theophilus Walker received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Lilacs, and at age 92 (soon to be 93), he remains a musical phenomenon, still going strong. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1922, to a Jamaican immigrant father who became a physician and a musical mother, Walker showed obvious talent at a very young age; his mother supervised his first piano lessons at the age of five. Walker graduated from Dunbar High School at the age of 14 and went on that same year to give his first public recital at Howard University before heading to Oberlin College to study piano and organ.

Along with his creative life as a composer, Walker has enjoyed an impressive career as a concert pianist. In 1945 he became the first African-American instrumentalist to perform in New York City's Town Hall and just two weeks later played the fearsome Third Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff under the baton of Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yet Walker "never got the opportunities that would have allowed me to concertize like a white pianist," as he stated in an interview with The New York Times following his Pulitzer win, adding "I never felt bitter. I strongly felt if I continued to press for what I hoped to achieve, I would achieve it."

And that Walker has done with a vengeance. Among his many teaching posts, he served as Chairman of the Music Department at Rutgers University and also taught at the Peabody Institute. Walker was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999 and in 2000 was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame at the Library of Congress. Walker, who resides in Montclair, New Jersey, has penned his memoirs, published under the title Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist (Scarecrow Press).

As a composer Walker was encouraged by his supportive encounter with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in the later 1950s in Paris. Boulanger had taught Aaron Copland several decades before and eventually nurtured several generations of major American composers. Walker's catalogue of more than 90 works centers around instrumental, chamber, and orchestral compositions but includes art songs and a setting of the Mass. Albany Records has released a wide range of his work both as composer and as pianist.

The Pulitzer jury voted unanimously for Walker's setting for soprano and orchestra of Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd after the score was brought to their attention by his son Gregory, a violinist and composer himself for whom George Walker has written a violin concerto. (His other son, Ian, is a playwright and actor based in San Francisco.) Then-critic of the Boston Globe Richard Dyer enthused over Lilacs, writing, "There is wonderful music in this cycle, which is profoundly responsive to the images in the text-you can hear the sway of lilacs in the rhythm, smell their fragrance in the harmony."

Walker has composed pieces on commissions from such prestigious institutions as the Kennedy Center, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony (Lilacs), the Eastman School of Music, the Boys Choir of Harlem (Cantata), and many more. Sinfonia No. 4 was written on a joint commission from the National Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra through through the Meet The Composer's Commissioning Music/USA program. The world premiere took place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on March 30, 2012, with Jacques Lacombe conducting the New Jersey Symphony.

Composed in 2011, the Sinfonia No. 4 is subtitled "Strands," explains Walker, by virtue of its "interplay of several melodic and motivic elements that are fused into a mosaic-like texture." Because the commission was for a relatively short piece, he realized he could make a maximal impact by composing a concise one-movement work featuring the density of symphonic thought. The alternative of a "concert opener" or fanfare-type piece held no appeal. Walker adds that "the entire tradition of a one-movement ‘sinfonia' goes back to the Baroque era, though there's nothing neoclassical about my writing."

Walker takes issue with the inevitable label of being an "African-American composer," he says, "because I don't have any connection to Africa." He wants to be recognized simply as an American composer. Walker's Americanness can be found in his penchant for using vernacular materials with American roots-not only spirituals, which he deeply treasures, but folk music and jazz, all as part of a wide-ranging palette. "For me, ‘composition' is about selecting and organizing various materials. The composer has provided the following brief description of the music:

The introduction is divided into two sections. The first contains a motive of four notes, two of which are rapidly repeated in the bass clarinet, bassoons, cellos and contrabasses. After the introduction, the principal theme appears in the violins. Transitional material leads to a modified re-statement in the violins.

 

A contrasting section with a steady eighth note pulse in an arcing melodic line in bassoons and violas with cellos and contrabasses playing pizzicato is punctuated with outbursts in the winds and percussion. Another transition leads to a fragment of the wonderfully placid spiritual, "There Is a Balm In Gilead." Dovetailed to this is the affirmation of a second spiritual, "Roll, Jordan, Roll" in a brass fanfare. The quote is repeated in the piano and combined with a similarly stated rising bass line played by trombones and tuba. The piano repeats its fragment against an agitated passage in triplets played by the violins and marked by powerful repetitions of a single note by the timpani alternating with a bass drum. The final sections of the work contain fragments combined from the principal theme and the opening motive from the introduction."