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When the Past Comes Close

Today and tomorrow, I will have a series on George Walker, an American composer (and pianist). Part I is here. Before continuing with Walker, I want to tell you about something else.

In the next National Review, I’ll have a piece on Thomas Hampson, the American baritone. He is currently singing Don Giovanni at La Scala. He told me that, when he was young, he was coached by an old man — who remembered Vienna when Mahler ran the opera. And that man, when very young, was taught by a very old man — who remembered, long before, a man walking through the streets like a nut, because he was deaf. That was Beethoven.

Imagine that: one contact away from Mahler, two from Beethoven.

Back to George Walker — who was born in 1922, in Washington, D.C. He knew his grandmother — his mother’s mother — very well. She lived to a great old age. No one was quite sure how old she was. Probably, she didn’t know.

She’d had two husbands. She lost the first one when he was sold at auction. The second had died. She herself had escaped slavery.

She never talked about it. Except one time, when young George could not help himself and said, “What was it like?” What was the experience of slavery like? She spoke one sentence — only: “They did everything except eat us.”

It was remarkable to be sitting and talking with a man who had known a slave — an ex-slave — very, very well. He was already graduated from Oberlin when she died. (He was a prodigy, a very young student.) He dedicated an early piece to her — Lyric for Strings — and it remains his best-known piece. “My grandmother’s piece,” he calls it.

Anyway, get to know George Walker a bit. It’ll be worth it, I think.

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