George Walker: Lyric for Strings

Written for the Houston Symphony. Not to be reprinted without permission.

George Walker was born in 1922 to a prosperous Black family in Washington, DC. His father had emigrated from Jamaica and become a physician, and his mother was a Washington local who had worked for the Government Printing Office. They were part of an elite circle focused around Howard University, and Walker studied piano at the school’s Junior Preparatory Department. After skipping several grades, he enrolled at Oberlin College at 14 and graduated at 18. He was then accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Rudolph Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero.

In November 1945, Walker made a recital debut at the Town Hall in New York (a rite of passage at the time) and a concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. Despite these high-profile concerts and good reviews, he found that not enough concert presenters would regularly book a Black classical pianist. After earning a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, he turned to composition and academia, spending a long career on the faculty of Rutgers University. In 1996 he became the first Black composer to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Music, awarded for Lilacs for voice and orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony.

All this was possible for someone only two generations removed from slavery, someone who in fact grew up in a multigenerational home with a beloved grandmother, Malvina King, who had been enslaved. In his autobiography, Walker recalls once asking about her experience, which was otherwise not discussed, and her reply: “they did everything except eat us.” When King died in 1946, her grandson was still a student at Curtis, and his Lyric for Strings is dedicated to her memory. It was originally the slow movement to a string quartet, and the string orchestra version was premiered on the radio, conducted by Seymour Lipkin, under the title Lament for Strings. When it was published, Walker changed Lament to Lyric, but informally he simply called it “my grandmother’s piece.”

As an artist and scholar, Walker had no patience for lazy assumptions and easy comparisons—dismissing, for instance, any notion that he was skilled at jazz or influenced by the Harlem Renaissance (he wasn’t), and also disdaining those who too-readily associated his Lyric for Strings with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936). Both composers studied at Curtis with the same teacher a decade apart, and both pieces began as string quartet movements with an elegiac feel. But to Walker, these were superficialities that overlooked important differences in musical form and content. “The linear texture of the Lyric, the clearly defined structural components and the pizzicato, separates its conception from that of the earlier string work,” he wrote.

Describing his piece more fully, Walker said: “After a brief introduction, the principal theme that permeates the entire work is introduced by 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 … The coda recalls the quiet interlude.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.