Monday, January 7, 2019

John Malveaux: New Music Box: "Remembering George Walker"

George Walker (1922-2018)

John Malveaux of 

Violinist Gregory Walker shared this article with MusicUNTOLD

New Music Box

Devotion to a Personal Vision—Remembering George Walker (1922-2018)

By Gregory T.S. Walker
on January 4, 2019

Nineteen seconds of silence are suddenly broken by timpani drums and a dissonant brass fanfare.  Like the majesty of Aaron Copland’s Common Man, but with a trenchant angularity which conjures perhaps a different Americana than Copland could have envisioned.  Now envisioned through the eyes of my father, the son of a West Indian immigrant, the grandson of a slave.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

The first image in Frank Schramm’s documentary Discovering George Walker is of an old Maxell cassette. Its typed label reads, “George Walker: Sinfonia No. 3.”  My father delivered an envelope with this cassette to the filmmaker’s doorstep when they first met in 2004.  Audio cassettes were a little archaic even in 2004, but consider my father’s first forays into audio technology dated back to the 78s and cactus phonograph needles of the 1930s.

“George Walker, Pianist and first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.  A trailblazer who wrote more than 90 works.  He is 95 years old.”

With these subtitles, the documentary begins.
For my father, too, the “pianist” came first.  Even his 1937 Dunbar High School yearbook entry audaciously announced the goal: “To be a concert pianist.”  Audacious considering that my father’s father, whose name was Artmelle George Theophilus Walker, had emigrated to America from Jamaica with $35 in his pocket, though he himself went on to graduate from the medical school at Temple University and became a prominent northwest Washington, D.C. physician and property owner.

“His silence in a room created an aura of Olympian authority,” my father said.  “He seldom initiated a conversation when he was at home, preferring instead to listen to our conversation with critical ears.”

But Sunday evenings when my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano in the parlor, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing, file in, and hum or sing along.

“The poor and middle class had a piano in their home and parents made their children take lessons, and it was always classical music. This is what I’ve always tried to make clear.  This taught us what was good, what was proper, what was desirable, what was cultured, and what was not cultured,” my father would say, his voice rising.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

George Walker left Washington, D.C. for Oberlin College on a piano scholarship at age 15.  At age 18, he would graduate from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his class. He then went on to graduate from the Curtis Institute with artist diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, and in 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School.   He received a Fulbright to study with Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of Aaron Copland, at the American School at Fontainebleau in Paris.  During his first lesson, Mlle. Boulanger looked at the first of his songs.  She said, “This is a masterpiece.”

It was at Fontainebleau that my father met a young Canadian pianist named Helen Siemens.

“From my second story window I can hear him practicing and composing in the practice rooms in the basement,” my mother wrote in her diary.  “He is writing a new sonata and as he noodles and works out the ideas, I can hear it taking form.  I love it!  There’s a passage in the first movement variations into which he has inserted a little pattern which he calls ‘sputnik,’ after the space vehicle the Russians have just put into orbit.  I hope he lets me play the sonata when it is finished.”

In that spring of 1958 they explored the coast of France and Italy, Monaco, Monte Carlo, the yellow stucco of Pisa, Maria Della Spina, the Basilica of Assisi, and the old fortress town of Lodi, seeing Ingrid Bergman in Tea and Sympathy, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Menotti at the Spoleto Festival.  She did premiere his second piano sonata when they returned to Fontainebleau.

Later in New York, amidst sustained protest from both families, the interracial couple married on July 23, 1960.  They divorced thirteen years later, and he never publicly mentioned her again.

One minute, twenty-seven seconds into Discovering George Walker, we see his face for the first time.  Black plastic glasses slightly askew, as are the bookshelves in the background, heavy with counterpoint and orchestration tomes and his old childhood hymnal, his reedy taut voice is careful, painstaking.  It’s critical to state his ideas clearly so no one will confuse them.  His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” he once said.  “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.”

Frank Schramm the filmmaker can be seen hard at work in our Montclair, New Jersey home around the five-minute mark.  Even as he partitions our living room with a black scrim for the photo session, his second camera captures background details that in retrospect feel iconic to me.   The gauzy, translucent curtains throughout the house that I can still smell somehow seemed to veil rather than reflect or refract what little light there was.  The heavy brass locks on the front door; the two spun in opposite directions, but which was which?

And his wicker-backed, red velvet chair.  By the time my brother, Ian, and I were in elementary school, he’d lost patience with the local churches for one reason or another.  Instead of going to church Sunday mornings, he’d call us down from our rooms to his chair, take out the Bible, and give us a single scripture to read.  One morning it was Psalm 23.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

He’d tell us what it was all supposed to mean.  Then the sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today.  Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.  There were “maudlin melodies” of composers like George Gershwin.  From Minimalist composers, it was “tedious repetition.”  From renowned performers including Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the worst were the “rhythmical distortions.”  Then things would spiral back to memories of his parents and their values and he would bring himself to tears.

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