George Walker’s Lyric for Strings

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

George Walker, who died two years ago at age 96, first won fame with Lyric for Strings, which he composed at age 24. By that point his career had already taken several turns. His father was a doctor who had emigrated from Jamaica to Washington, D.C., and his American mother gave the prodigy his first piano lessons. At age 14 Walker presented his debut recital at Howard University and soon entered the Oberlin College Conservatory, graduating at 18. He then went to study with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but already his interests were shifting to composition. He headed to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger—the focus of the Bard Music Festival next summer—and eventually to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he earned his doctorate. Walker continued to inhabit the educational realm during a distinguished teaching career at a variety of institutions, including the New School for Social Research, Smith College, University of Colorado, and, for the lengthiest stretch, Rutgers University. Walker garnered many awards and prizes, including a Fulbright Fellowship to France, grants from the Rockefeller Foundation to study in Italy, and two Guggenheim fellowships. He was elected a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts, and in 1996 became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Walker composed the work we hear today in 1946, originally as the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1, which he dedicated to the memory of his grandmother. (This middle slow movement was originally called “Lament.”) He was then studying at Curtis with Rosario Scalero and was inspired to write a quartet after exploring those of Debussy and Ravel. Walker said of the music: “After a brief introduction, the principal theme that permeates the entire work is introduced by 6 the first violins. A static interlude is followed by successive imitations of the theme that lead to an intense climax. The final section of the work presents a somewhat more ornamented statement of the same thematic material. The coda recalls the quiet interlude that appeared earlier.”

The idea of arranging the quartet movement for string orchestra came from one of his friends at Curtis, Seymour Lipkin, who went on to a celebrated career as a pianist. At the time, Lipkin also wanted to be a conductor and put together a string orchestra of Curtis students for a radio broadcast. Walker suggested that he could add double basses to the slow movement of his quartet for performance, as nearly a decade earlier Samuel Barber, another Scalero student at Curtis, had done in his famous Adagio for Strings. Walker’s “Lament” was broadcast in 1947 and the next year performed as “Adagio” at the National Gallery in Washington conducted by Richard Bales. Upon publication, Walker chose the title Lyric for Strings and it went on to be his most frequently performed composition.