The “Black Mozart” The Chevalier de Saint Georges takes part in a fencing match with the cross-dressing French secret agent Charles d’Eon de Beaumont. Photograph: Mansell/TimePix/Rex Features
George Walker (b. 1922)
has a website at http://georgetwalker.com/
and is featured at AfriClassical.com
The first African American to win the Pulitzer for music is celebrated for overcoming cultural prejudice, but his work is so good this should only be a sideshow to the main event of his compositions
There is a lot to catch up on: a 93 year-old composer with one of the most remarkable lives in the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I’ve only just discovered his music properly. George Walker was the first African American to win a Pulitzer prize for music (in 1996, for his Walt Whitman song-cycle, Lilacs), and his career as a pianist and composer is, especially in his early decades, a story of firsts. He was the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1945, the first black musician to play New York’s Town Hall in the same year, the first black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School in 1955 (you can hear his remarkable performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, conducted by the composer Howard Hanson here), the first black tenured faculty member at Smith College in 1961 – and many more.
Those achievements tell their own story of the prejudices, lack of opportunities, and segregated cultural life of those decades in America, and are also part of larger narrative in which black performers and composers have been silent or ignored over the decades and centuries. Think of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the so-called Black Mozart, who composed string quartets, symphonies and concertos in the late-18th century, and who influenced Mozart in Paris – Wolfgang pilfered one of Saint-George’s ideas in his Sinfonia Concertante K364, as Chi-chi Nwanoku’s recent Radio 4 documentary revealed. He was also one of the era’s greatest violinists and orchestra leaders, who catalysed Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. As if that were not enough, he was also one of the most accomplished gentlemen anywhere in Europe, a famed fencer and socialite, but his music isn’t performed anything like enough now. It’s fitting George Walker has honoured him in his flighty, angular, swashbuckling Foils for Orchestra: Homage à Saint George.
But from interviews that Walker has given recently, including one this week in the Washington Post, it’s clear that while the story of overcoming cultural prejudice is part of Walker’s life story and is enfolded into his work, far more important to him is his ceaseless and rigorous focus on the craft and quality of the music he writes. According to the Washington Post, Walker is working on a symphony at the moment, a piece that will follow his catalogue of four Sinfonias, the last entitled Strands and composed in 2012. Walker’s recent music – like Strands, the turbulent Sinfonia No 3, or the teemingly energetic and mercurial Movements for Cello and Orchestra – has a sharp-edged clarity in its modernist dissonances and angularity, and yet you feel his essential desire to communicate with his audiences throughout.
Comment by email:
Hello Bill, Thanks for very much for posting the article. Best regards. George [George Walker]