Modern, Dynamic, Intense, a Unity of Sensibility: George Walker’s Great American Concert Music

By Daniel Garrett

George Walker, Great American Concert Music
Engineers: John Messersmith, Jeremy Tressler, Samuel McGuire
Albany Records, 2012

In George Walker’s Great American Concert Music, one perceives a unity of sensibility, with not much space between the delicate and the solid, music in which a sense of importance, drama, is easily summoned. The music is modern, dynamic, intense, intricate, and requires and rewards attention; and it is performed here by the pianists Leon Bates and Robert Pollock and George Walker himself, with the Ritz Chamber players and soprano Alison Buchanan, as well as George’s son Gregory, a violinist. The writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two connoisseurs of jazz, have described African-Americans and their experience, marked by the drive for survival, creativity, and style, often leading to an heroic sense of self, as quintessentially American; an interpretation of history that repudiates a narrative of defeat, deprivation, and nihilism. George Walker’s dedication to classical music, inspired by the European tradition, could be considered one form of heroism.

History is both gift and burden, the lens through which we can be viewed with promise or doubt, the gaze that confirms power or weakness. The history of western classical music can be mapped by seeing the way of medieval or thirteenth century troubadours, churches, and composers, as their music began with single lines, focused on the voice, and became multiple lines coming together in harmony; and then fifteenth and sixteenth century organization of musical work into major and minor scales, with the major scale associated with joy and the minor with sadness—and the creation of choral and piano music by composers such as Tallis and Palestrina. More elaborate forms of expression brought forth music for public events beyond the church, music for concert and court, orchestras and operas, the work of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Purcell, Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, the work of the baroque period, the seventeenth century. Structure became all; and the sonata and then the concerto and symphony became paramount in classical music in the eighteenth through the nineteenth century. For a long time, classical music was one of the principal references for evidence of the wonder and value of western civilization; and that kind of highly structured music, with its strict standards of excellence, has been the work of George Walker’s life.

Mastering and being creative in the classical music tradition demanded courage, dedication, and discipline, as well as imagination. The music of George Walker has great dramatic force, and sometimes surprises—which seems a mark of its modernism. What can be the relation to a classical art that began in another culture, in another era? There are different forms of the classical, the classical being an embodiment of beauty, complexity, and thought, a standard of lasting excellence of form, content, value, and use. In his book Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2006), the scholar Patrice D. Rankine discusses the work of Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Countee Cullen, and other African-American writers and argues for an ongoing engagement with classical antiquity, that is with the ancient Greek and Roman world and the ideas, arts, and myths they produced. The engagement is a conversation about experience and ideals: what do we want to be, and do? Those writers, such as Ellison and Morrison, have chosen to participate in a conversation that lasts centuries; and the music composer George Walker, in claiming the classical, has claimed the past, the present, and the future.

The music collected on George Walker’s Great American Concert Music is divided into four major portions: the “Piano Sonata No. 3,” with a fantasia and reprise, a repeated chord of varied length, and a chorale melody with short chords; “Music for 3,” a piano piece with atonal aspects; individual art songs, with texts by English and American poets, including Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes; and the “Piano Sonata No. 5,” a demanding one-part sonorous work. It is impossible not to be impressed by the nature and strength of the compositions and their performance, and yet there may be reservations. The sung pieces have a nice vocal tone, but the singer’s diction is not always clear to me. However, the warm, measured tone is sometimes replaced by something bordering on shrill. Some of the recitation has an impressive theatricality but does not convey the urgency of life. When the lyrics come through, there is the opportunity for dramatic and intellectual weight—but hitting the notes, or technique, seems more significant, more present, than feeling. The religious songs seem an expression of sentimentality as much as an affirmation of cultural tradition, making a modernist sound even more appealing in contrast.

Is there any good reason an intelligent and talented African-American should not have a relationship with classical culture? In the book Blackness in Opera (Univ. of Illinois, 2012), edited by Naomi Andre, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, the opera singer Grace Bumbry is quoted on the sometimes very personal difficulties of being an African-American artist in classical music—the establishment elitism and the accusations of pushy ambition and pretension, the resistance to cultural difference and suspicion of primitive orientation. Grace Bumbry talks about being thought pretentious when singing Liszt and Brahms and being thought of as crude when singing spirituals with a simple, sincere approach. When Bumbry did extensive research for her projects, sometimes more than directors and conductors, even that was suspect. “So maybe I fought, sometimes unwisely,” Bumbry seems to conclude, as quoted in Gwynne Kuhner Brown’s piece on Porgy and Bess (page 175). It is absurd, and tragic, how responding to the conditions and terms others create can give someone the reputation of being difficult.

What is the relation to a classical art that began in another culture, in another era? One has to make a special effort to enter the work, and to make a place for it in one’s life. Such musical and poetic statements, to be presented in a formal—public or ceremonial—setting, rather than for easy home listening, are beautiful, complicated, dramatic: serious. The music has intensity and vigor as part of its craft, its construction. Will the listener match the composer in attention?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.