George Theophilus Walker

Two Sunday nights ago, the Mannes Beethoven Institute presented a concert of Beethoven and George Walker. Beethoven, you’re familiar with. Walker? He is an American composer born in 1922. He now lives in Montclair, N.J. Later this month, he will have his ninety-third birthday. He is currently working on an orchestra piece. He was unable to make the Mannes concert.

Thomas Sauer, a pianist who directs the Beethoven Institute, introduced the evening with a few remarks. He recalled his old teacher, the Cuban-American pianist Jorge Bolet. Bolet was “a man of few words,” said Sauer. When it came to contemporary music, he was “a man of even fewer words.” But he recommended to his student, Sauer, that he look into the music of George Walker.

Walker was born in Washington, D.C. His father had come to these shores from Jamaica. Young Mr. Walker graduated from D.C.’s Dunbar High, that fount of black achievement. Thomas Sowell has written frequently about this remarkable high school (here, for example).

Walker went on to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He has many “firsts” to his credit. What I mean is, he was the first black graduate of Curtis, the first black faculty member to receive tenure at Smith College, the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, etc.

At Mannes, we heard two piano sonatas by Walker. The first was No. 2, which Walker composed in 1956 as his doctoral dissertation at Eastman. It is in four movements, beginning with a Theme and Ten Variations. The sonata is both finely crafted and musical. I think I heard discreet touches of jazz and blues. The sonata is an example of pleasant modernism. In an interview with me, the late Lorin Maazel once spoke of “tonal-sounding atonality.” That phrase applies to this Walker sonata, I think.

Though clearly the product of midcentury American modernism, the sonata is not merely cerebral. It is rather emotional and passionate. And it was played that way by Robert McDonald, a pianist best known for partnering Midori, the one-named violinist. McDonald not only played with passion but also with intense concentration.

The other Walker sonata on the program was his No. 3, composed in 1975. The first movement, Fantoms, is conventionally modernist, I would say. But the second movement, Bell, is something else. As our program notes said, it “consists of one chord that is repeated seventeen times with different durations and dynamics. It was intended to replicate the sound of a bell heard over Lake Como in Italy when the composer was a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio.” In his third and final movement, Walker gives modern treatments to old forms: That movement is headed “Choral and Fughetta.” (“Choral” is an old-fashioned and optional way of saying “chorale.”)

This Sonata No. 3 was played by the institute director, Thomas Sauer, with intelligent dedication.

Allow me to note that the first line of Walker’s Wikipedia entry reads, “George Theophilus Walker (born June 27, 1922) is a black American composer, the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.” Maybe the line should be “is an American composer”? Or simply “a composer”? To be debated another time . . .

Also, let me say that Mr. Walker has already had sixty-two more years on this planet than Schubert did. (The earlier composer died at age thirty-one.) I have a habit of saying this sort of thing when writing about long-lived composers, and perhaps I should break the habit.

The Mannes concert began with Beethoven: his Sonata in G major for violin and piano, Op. 30, No. 3. It was played by Miranda Cuckson and Mr. Sauer. Their performance was flawed, musical, and alive. Completely alive.

I thought, “In grander venues such as Carnegie Hall, I hear many performances that are mediocre, safe, and bland. Give me something like this—with heart and blood—any day.”

Then we had some songs by Beethoven, sung by the tenor Nils Neubert, who was accompanied at the piano by his wife, Yuri Kim. The Beethoven songs included one in Italian, “In questa tomba oscura.” (Shades of Aida.)

For many years, people have pleaded for greater recognition of Beethoven’s songs, as Mr. Sauer does. I should be firmly in their camp, Beethoven idolater that I am. I am not, however—and since boyhood have found myself wishing that the great man had written better songs (great as the cycle “An die ferne Geliebte,” for example, may be).

(By the way, I think something similar about Chopin songs: one of the greatest melodists who ever lived, writing songs that are, in my estimation, so-so.)

The concert ended with a performance of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata by the pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn. He’s a dear friend of mine—Ignat, I mean, though I consider Beethoven a dear friend as well—so I must not review. Still, he played the sonata with Beethoven-like strength, soulfulness, and vividness. Friendship or not, it’s true.

 

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