An American Outsider, Part II

(Photo: Frank Schramm)
The composer George Walker

Editor’s Note: In our May 15 issue, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger on this remarkable musician. Mr. Nordlinger is expanding it in Impromptus. For Part I, go here. The series concludes today.

Where were we? We have graduated George Walker from Dunbar High — at age 14. He then went to Oberlin College, in Ohio. This was a natural choice. It was strong in music. And it had been admitting blacks for a hundred years.

George was the youngest student at the college: 15.

‐At Oberlin, he heard many of the greatest musicians of the day — including Rachmaninoff. Yes, Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists of all time (to say nothing of his compositions). Walker also heard Horowitz — who idolized Rachmaninoff.

Mr. Walker says that Horowitz was “a pianist who made me aware of what the piano could do.” Mind you, Horowitz was not always on. Like many of us, Mr. Walker heard him great and heard him bad — shockingly bad. But when he was on … holy Moses. There was hardly anything else like it.

‐At Oberlin, there was another student pianist: Frances Walker. George Walker’s younger sister. Later, she became a teacher on that same campus. In fact, she would be the first black woman to achieve the rank of full professor at Oberlin.

She still lives there.

‐After Oberlin, George Walker went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. One of his teachers was Rudolf Serkin, another of the big, big pianists of the day. Mr. Walker remembers everything that Serkin said. But he didn’t say much. He did not have much to offer. And he did not know some of the scores, says Mr. Walker, as well as he thought he did.

‐For composition, young Walker had Rosario Scalero — who had also taught Barber. Samuel Barber, the composer of Adagio for Strings and many other enduring works.

Mr. Walker recalls that, one day, Barber returned to the school in his uniform — the uniform of the Army Air Corps. With Mrs. Bok, the founder of the school, he served Wednesday tea.

‐Walker had an orchestration class with Gian Carlo Menotti. “It was a joke,” he says. I respond, “He didn’t give you much?” Mr. Walker says, “He didn’t give us anything.” Mr. Walker pretty much taught himself orchestration.

‐As you may have discerned, he is nothing if not blunt in his opinions. At one point in our discussion, we’re talking about Kreisleriana, the Schumann piece. “If you listen to that pianist from South America,” says Mr. Walker, rubbing his eyes in disgust. The object of his disgust, he cannot remember the name of. “Martha Argerich?” I hazard. He nods his head. “Terrible,” he says. “Terrible. She has no idea about the piece at all. No sense of the rhythm, no sense of the phrasing …”

‐In 1945, Walker competed in the Philadelphia Youth Auditions. On the jury were two people: Eugene Ormandy, the famed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and William Kapell, that great American pianist. Interestingly, Kapell was a few months younger than Walker. Yet he would die at 31, in a plane crash.

Walker won the competition — and played Rachmaninoff’s Concerto in D minor with the Philadelphians, under Ormandy.

Now, Maestro Ormandy, famously — or infamously — was not very nice to very many people. “Was he nice to you?” I ask Mr. Walker. No.

Well, perhaps we can credit Ormandy with consistency …

‐Off went young Walker to France, to be part of the “Boulangerie” — the students of Nadia Boulanger, that famous teacher of composition. Among her students — just to name a few Americans — were Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and Elliott Carter.

And George Walker. “You’re a composer,” she told him. That is a high compliment, from that source. Boulanger confirmed for him that he was on the right track. “Just keep going,” she said.

‐In the middle of the century, and for a long time thereafter, there was tremendous pressure on composers to conform to a modernist fashion: a fashion epitomized by Pierre Boulez, the renowned Frenchman. Did Walker ever feel such pressure? “No,” he says. “I’m an outsider. I don’t have connections to composers. Even black composers.”

‐I ask him who, among his colleagues, is underrated. He cannot give me an answer. I ask who is overrated. He says, emphatically, “Boulez.”

‐Walker has had a multifaceted career: composing, playing, teaching. He taught at several institutions, chiefly Rutgers, in New Jersey, where he was chairman of the music department.

‐In 1996, he wrote Lilacs, for voice and orchestra (setting Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). It was this work that won Mr. Walker the Pulitzer Prize. Since its premiere, it has barely been performed at all. This is tremendously frustrating for a composer, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer.

‐Mr. Walker was married to a fellow pianist, Helen Walker-Hill. They had two sons, Gregory and Ian. You recall, from Part I, that Mr. Walker’s father had kept mum about medicine. He didn’t pressure his son to go into his own field. In fact, he never even brought up the subject.

How about Mr. Walker? Was he similarly hands-off with his own sons? No. “I’m the micromanager!” he exclaims. Gregory is a violinist; Ian is a playwright. Gregory is a champion of his father’s music, including a violin concerto, written for him.

‐In his 90-plus years, George Walker has written 90-plus works. Funny how that has worked out. In 2008, I interviewed Elliott Carter on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. (He lived to 103.) He was diligently working. Mr. Walker, too, works. “When you’ve been doing something for so long, there’s nothing else you can think of doing,” he says.

I ask, “Are there musical ideas in your head all the time?” No, he answers. “I try not to think about music except when I sit down to compose.” That both surprises and impresses me. I think of a modern word: “compartmentalization.”

‐We talk about race and the impact of discrimination. Mr. Walker says that a big problem is tokenism: People perform a work by a black composer, pat themselves on the back, and think, “Well, that’s done.”

Then there’s this: Pianists may well be asked to play Rhapsody in Blue — instead of a concerto by Mozart, for example. (Allow me to note that Rhapsody in Blue was composed by a Brooklyn-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The original name of the family was Gershowitz.)

(And isn’t it interesting that Copland, another Brooklyn-born Jew, created the “sound of the American West”?)

‐George Walker has many gripes about the music business, as everyone does. But he has no gripes about music. He had his first piano lesson at five, 90 years ago. And he loves music as much as he ever did. “The love of music permeates me,” he says. “The love of good music.”


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.


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