Tag: nonagenarian composers

Devotion to a Personal Vision—Remembering George Walker (1922-2018)

Photo of a BIPOC man sitting in a chair with his shoulder facing the camera

Nineteen seconds of silence are suddenly broken by timpani drums and a dissonant brass fanfare.  Like the majesty of Aaron Copland’s Common Man, but with a trenchant angularity which conjures perhaps a different Americana than Copland could have envisioned.  Now envisioned through the eyes of my father, the son of a West Indian immigrant, the grandson of a slave.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

The first image in Frank Schramm’s documentary Discovering George Walker is of an old Maxell cassette. Its typed label reads, “George Walker: Sinfonia No. 3.”  My father delivered an envelope with this cassette to the filmmaker’s doorstep when they first met in 2004.  Audio cassettes were a little archaic even in 2004, but consider my father’s first forays into audio technology dated back to the 78s and cactus phonograph needles of the 1930s.

“George Walker, Pianist and first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.  A trailblazer who wrote more than 90 works.  He is 95 years old.”

With these subtitles, the documentary begins.

Frank Schramm’s 2017 documentary Discovering George Walker

For my father, too, the “pianist” came first.  Even his 1937 Dunbar High School yearbook entry audaciously announced the goal: “To be a concert pianist.”  Audacious considering that my father’s father, whose name was Artmelle George Theophilus Walker, had emigrated to America from Jamaica with $35 in his pocket, though he himself went on to graduate from the medical school at Temple University and became a prominent northwest Washington, D.C. physician and property owner.

“His silence in a room created an aura of Olympian authority,” my father said.  “He seldom initiated a conversation when he was at home, preferring instead to listen to our conversation with critical ears.”

But Sunday evenings when my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano in the parlor, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing, file in, and hum or sing along.

“The poor and middle class had a piano in their home and parents made their children take lessons, and it was always classical music. This is what I’ve always tried to make clear.  This taught us what was good, what was proper, what was desirable, what was cultured, and what was not cultured,” my father would say, his voice rising.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

George Walker left Washington, D.C. for Oberlin College on a piano scholarship at age 15.  At age 18, he would graduate from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his class. He then went on to graduate from the Curtis Institute with artist diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, and in 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School.   He received a Fulbright to study with Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of Aaron Copland, at the American School at Fontainebleau in Paris.  During his first lesson, Mlle. Boulanger looked at the first of his songs.  She said, “This is a masterpiece.”

It was at Fontainebleau that my father met a young Canadian pianist named Helen Siemens.

“From my second story window I can hear him practicing and composing in the practice rooms in the basement,” my mother wrote in her diary.  “He is writing a new sonata and as he noodles and works out the ideas, I can hear it taking form.  I love it!  There’s a passage in the first movement variations into which he has inserted a little pattern which he calls ‘sputnik,’ after the space vehicle the Russians have just put into orbit.  I hope he lets me play the sonata when it is finished.”

In that spring of 1958 they explored the coast of France and Italy, Monaco, Monte Carlo, the yellow stucco of Pisa, Maria Della Spina, the Basilica of Assisi, and the old fortress town of Lodi, seeing Ingrid Bergman in Tea and Sympathy, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Menotti at the Spoleto Festival.  She did premiere his second piano sonata when they returned to Fontainebleau.

Later in New York, amidst sustained protest from both families, the interracial couple married on July 23, 1960.  They divorced thirteen years later, and he never publicly mentioned her again.

One minute, twenty-seven seconds into Discovering George Walker, we see his face for the first time.  Black plastic glasses slightly askew, as are the bookshelves in the background, heavy with counterpoint and orchestration tomes and his old childhood hymnal, his reedy taut voice is careful, painstaking.  It’s critical to state his ideas clearly so no one will confuse them.  His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” he once said.  “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.”

Frank Schramm the filmmaker can be seen hard at work in our Montclair, New Jersey home around the five-minute mark.  Even as he partitions our living room with a black scrim for the photo session, his second camera captures background details that in retrospect feel iconic to me.   The gauzy, translucent curtains throughout the house that I can still smell somehow seemed to veil rather than reflect or refract what little light there was.  The heavy brass locks on the front door; the two spun in opposite directions, but which was which?

And his wicker-backed, red velvet chair.  By the time my brother, Ian, and I were in elementary school, he’d lost patience with the local churches for one reason or another.  Instead of going to church Sunday mornings, he’d call us down from our rooms to his chair, take out the Bible, and give us a single scripture to read.  One morning it was Psalm 23.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

He’d tell us what it was all supposed to mean.  Then the sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today.  Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.  There were “maudlin melodies” of composers like George Gershwin.  From Minimalist composers, it was “tedious repetition.”  From renowned performers including Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the worst were the “rhythmical distortions.”  Then things would spiral back to memories of his parents and their values and he would bring himself to tears.

  • When my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing and hum or sing along.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • The sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today. Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • Such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • Any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker

Six minutes or so into the documentary, there’s a photograph of what had been the family dining room, now filled with cables, high-end audio equipment, and an enormous Steinway D.  We hear a recording of George Walker playing his Piano Sonata No. 2 which he recorded in that very room.  It’s the sonata Helen Siemens first performed at Fontainebleau over a half century before, when they were together.  The recorded sound is bone dry, an unflinching representation of what a piano sounds like from inches away, to a composer hunched over the music rack.   Certainly different from the sounds ringing through the house when he used to practice Liszt and Brahms before one of his European tours, resonating up through the floors of our bedrooms as we fell asleep at night.

“One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well,” he once said.  “Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done.”

As George Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra plays, there’s a picture of him in Carnegie Hall.  Camel brown fedora firmly atop his head, bulky Brooks Brothers coat and scarf mid-flap, he’s making his way through the backstage labyrinth for an appointment with Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, in the Maestro Suite.  The opportunity to meet and show compositions to an important soloist or conductor like Sir Rattle was a rare coup, only possible because of, or in spite of, months of unrequited and increasingly impatient emails and phone calls.  The unresponsiveness of so many classical music industry gatekeepers could be called simple preoccupation; after all, the world is filled with dazzling musical talents.

This preoccupation could be called racist, if racism is an inability to look at a black man and see genius.

But such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon. Yes, the music, like the man, was challenging.  Relentless meter changes that reflected each phrase, complex rhythmic eyefuls that exerted his rubati onto each instrumental line, and Lord help the unprepared masterclass student.  But while it’s too bad composers have to rely upon the sustenance of the flawed, prosaic humanity around them, Sir Rattle himself was warmly supportive and my father’s smile in these pictures could not be more genuine.

Frank Schramm is also visible in a second, outdoor shoot in the backyard at the seven-minute mark.  My father sits on his red velvet chair, the very picture of old world elegance in his suit and tie, autumn leaves scattered around his shoes.  Behind him we see the tall hedges that insulate the home where he has now lived in self-imposed solitude for almost fifty years, and the open wooden gate out to a secluded driveway shared with the neighbor, between their houses.

Then he and the chair are back in the living room, positioned between a pair of stereo speakers that tower over his head.  These technological marvels were spoils of his financial success, capable of the most nuanced sonic realism, and also ear-splitting volume.   At first, a range of familiar classical records and CDs were on steady rotation: the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Stravinsky.  Anything with violinist Jascha Heifetz.  Later he gravitated to his own piano CDs, Chopin and Scarlatti, some of which he’d just recorded. During the last years, it was his own works.  He listened back to one after another, listening sessions with any accomplice willing to brave the decibels, cranking up the monoliths in hopes of a new perspective, a new detail within his creations.

Towards the end of the film, we see our old house blanketed with snow at dusk.  Uneven foot prints are visible in the white powder.

There had been one night when my father fell in the driveway and discovered he wasn’t strong enough to get back to his feet.  He called out for help, but secluded there far from the noisy street, nobody heard him.  The temperature was below freezing and it was becoming more and more difficult to even make a sound.  But there was a house behind the backyard where an older woman lived.  She had left one of her windows open and heard his voice.  She called the firemen who took him to the hospital and saved his life.

Many years ago when this woman was young, she’d hosted a party with loud music that was not Chopin or Scarlatti.  The police received a neighbor’s anonymous tip, arrived, and my father’s piece of mind had been restored.

George Walker, still dapper in his cardigan and tie, is climbing the long stairway to his bedroom.  It always looked like a herculean effort, because just standing without a cane had become difficult for him.  We hear the Cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Boys Choir, and Chamber Orchestra, which was recorded by the Boys Choir of Harlem and a conductor he was not impressed with.

“He had them stand for this tedious rehearsal,” my father remembered.  “I was horrified that here is an institution for youngsters concentrating in music, but they were treated like convicts. His physical dress was also unprofessional. The boys had nothing to look up to.”

The Cantata contains a desolate setting of Psalm 23.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In our day and age of dazzling musical talent that’s available at the push of a button or the click of a link, the music and legacy of George Walker may represent possibilities that are more and more difficult to find:  The devotion to a personal vision at a time when many composers conform to an extant musical scene.  The musical expression of an artist, who like masters of the past, was obviously cut from a different cloth.  And a connection to past masters’ seemingly ageless historical tradition that could conceivably outlast us all.

My brother and I will never forget what it was to be loved by our father.  But today any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.

Gregory T. S. Walker standing and holding a violin with George Walker seated on a red chair.

Gregory T.S. Walker and his father, George Walker

Thea Musgrave: Where The Practicality Comes In

One of the most delightful afternoons I’ve had this year was spent visiting Thea Musgrave in her New York apartment, located in a landmarked building on the Upper West Side. That 1899 edifice, once The Ansonia Hotel and now simply the Ansonia, has counted among its tenants Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Rachmaninoff, as well as Babe Ruth, Theodore Dreiser, and Natalie Portman. Though today the building is one of the city’s most glorious architectural marvels, its history is loaded with some incredibly bizarre stories.  That building’s mix of grandeur and narrative intrigue proved to be a very apt setting for a conversation with this distinguished, soon-to-be nonagenarian composer (“Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off”) who turned out to also be one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever encountered.

Musgrave had so many stories to tell: almost flunking out of the University of Edinburgh for writing a too “adventurous piece” which Nadia Boulanger subsequently saw promise in; sharing space with electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram who put “recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom”; having a dream in the 1960s about conducting an orchestra in which members started defying her and playing other music, which ultimately turned into her theatrical Clarinet Concerto; including a huge chorus of local children in the Virginia Opera premiere of A Christmas Chorus to ensure that “the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house”; and never giving a thought to being a “female composer” until she moved to the United States in the early 1970s and people here made such a fuss about it.

Read on for her further elaborations of each of these experiences and many, many more. Better yet, watch and listen to all the video footage of her we’ve included here, since listening to her reminisce is even more entertaining. However, in addition to how pleasurable it is to listen to her various quips, they are also full of tons of take away value for other composers or, for that matter, anyone else dedicated to an artistic pursuit since at the root of all of Musgrave’s anecdotes is a deep sense of practicality.

“If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no,” she remembered telling her students at Queens College. “However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

But that doesn’t mean she believes in avoiding risk-taking.

“Sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens,” she acknowledged toward the end of our visit with her.  “I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, ‘Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.’ You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, ‘Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.’”

October 4, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.
Thea Musgrave in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  As I was listening again to recordings of many of your compositions and studying your scores over the course of the past few weeks in preparation for our conversation today, I was struck by how open-minded and yet practical your music is.

“Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

Thea Musgrave:  Well, I’m Scottish, so that’s where the practicality comes in.  I always used to say to my students when I taught here at Queens College for CUNY for some 15 years: “If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no.  However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”  So that’s what I’ve been applying for myself.  I also think that when you write, particularly for an orchestra, orchestras don’t have time to mess around with difficult notations and things that are very unnecessarily complicated.  I like to have my orchestral pieces basically sight-readable by a good professional orchestra.  When you come to the rehearsal, you spend the time on making the phrases flow and getting the balances right so they all know to hear each other.  Good orchestras, they’re smart.  So they know what to listen for and they adjust.  That’s where you should spend the time.  Not working out notation.  However, you can do some exciting new things, which I did for certain reasons, which maybe we’ll come to in a moment.

FJO:  We definitely will.  But before we do, I wonder if you’d agree that part of the practicality of your music stems from the fact that you have not been dogmatically beholden to any of the so-called “isms” that were so pervasive in the 20th century.

TM:  Yes, but I explored them.  There was a period when 12-tone-ism was very powerful and very interesting.  There were a lot of wonderful pieces.  And so I explored that for a while, but it wasn’t for me.  My friend Richard [Rodney] Bennett really lived in that world and did some absolutely fabulous things.  I didn’t stay there, but I think the idea of how it worked has influenced me.

Carlisle Floyd, Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett standing together.

Thea Musgrave (center) with Carlisle Floyd (left) and Richard Rodney Bennett (right), date unknown.
(Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  You might take some aspects from somewhere. You mentioned 12-tone writing. Electronic music is also something that you’ve explored to your own ends and have done some very interesting things with.

TM:  I didn’t have an electronic studio, so the important thing for me was to meet somebody.  And in London, there was Daphne Oram, who started the BBC Radiophonic Workshop way back when.  She said in the early days she used to have to work at night when the place was basically closed, so she would have the recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom, and then would be running down the corridor with the mic to get the distance effect.  All this, of course, you don’t need now.  But I remember working in her studio, and we had loops hanging up all around. Young people now working in this have no idea what it was like when it was all new.

And when I was studying in Paris in the ‘50s, we talked about musique électronique and musique concrète. Electronic music, which was basically sound waves, was very boring to work with; musique concrète, which was from live sounds—that’s what I liked.  I didn’t like the sine waves; they were not interesting in themselves.  But that was really the beginning of things. When I was a kid, we didn’t have television.  You went to the movies to see what was happening in the war.  You didn’t have television at home, let alone not having internet.  People can’t imagine that now.

I wrote this radio opera called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which of course is a well-known story here about the American Civil War by Ambrose Bierce.  And, as I had learned by listening to the radio, wonderful plays were done with incredible sound effects, and sometimes with music. I thought, “Okay, we’ll have music and we’ll also have sound effects in this opera.”  So there’s horses galloping, dogs barking, soldiers marching, and stuff like that.  There were two levels in this opera.  One was a real-life level.  So I had spoken voices of certain characters.  But central characters, like Peyton Farquhar who was an Ambrose Bierce character, could speak as he is in the outside world, but in the internal world he sings and he’s accompanied by a chamber orchestra.  He hears what’s in the outside world, but they don’t hear his comments and feelings.  It was wonderful to work on these two levels.

FJO:  You conceived of it for radio, but has it ever been staged?

TM:  It’s difficult to stage because of what it’s about, but it actually has been done. It’s tricky because of the nature of the story.

FJO:  Before we go into greater detail about some of your other pieces, I’m curious about how you first became exposed to various things that were going on in music during your early years, especially since you mentioned that you learned about things from the radio and news reels about the Second World War that would only be something you’d be able to see in a movie theater. You were already studying music before the war and continued to do so afterwards. The way that history is presented to us now, it’s as if there was a sea change in musical composition right after the war. Of course, Schoenberg and other composers of the Second Viennese School were writing 12-tone music and their work was not completely unknown. After the war, however, there was a real flowering of this music but there also seemed to be much more polarization between composers who embraced that approach and composers who didn’t. The neoclassicists and the serialists seemed to be opposing camps that didn’t speak to each other. And the folks who were creating music using chance procedures were in their own separate camp. Or so the story goes. But I wonder how perceptible those animosities really were to people at the time.

“Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast.”

TM:  Well, in Britain, we spoke to each other actually.  And music by chance happened a little later.  I knew most of the composers around in Britain at that time.  I’ve lost touch now because I’ve been here for so long.  Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast—there are pockets of composers in Chicago, Boston, New York, Houston, whatever.  I like meeting other composers and comparing notes, as Richard [Bennett] and I did all through our adult lives. It was wonderful to have that kind of exchange, because he was a wonderful musician. Not only did he write 12-tone music when he was writing so-called serious music, but of course he wrote all those fabulous music scores for the movies.

A 1965 photo of Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at a cafe; Musgrave and Maxwell Davies are drinking from teacups.

(from left to right) Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at London’s Cafe Boulevard on April 9, 1965. (Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  When you were growing up in Scotland, how connected was the musical life in Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom?

TM:  Well, I went to university in Edinburgh and then I went straight to Paris from there.  The auld alliance! I lived in Paris for four years.  It’s not true anymore, but in those days you really had to be in London.  So after Paris, I came back and I settled in London.  Things happened from London, even though there was a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and so on.  I think most decisions seemed to have happened in London.  So people lived there.  I think it’s different now. People live in different places, and with the internet one can be connected in other ways.

What was wonderful about the BBC Scottish was that it had a policy—and I hope it still exists—of helping young composers learn their craft, because although you can learn a lot in school, then comes the practicality of learning how to write for an orchestra and how an orchestra functions.  And in those days, in the late ‘50s, the assistant conductor was Colin Davis.  So one of my early works was conducted by Colin Davis. He was a clarinet player and was married to a singer in those days, and had just started to conduct. That’s where I began to learn how to work with an orchestra, the BBC Scottish—thank you!

FJO: And the reason you went to Paris before that was to study with Nadia Boulanger.

TM:  That was wonderful!  What’s really funny and I think quite influential for me is when I was at university, Donald Francis Tovey had brought over a composer from Vienna—I think realizing something terrible was about to happen—Hans Gál.  So I was studying composition with him.  I wrote some rather staid pieces, and then I started getting more adventurous. For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.  They passed me because they’d seen the conventional pieces before that.  Now when I went to Boulanger, I showed her the old fashioned pieces, and she sort of looked and said, “Qu’est-que c’est que ça?  And I said, “Well, I do have this.” And I showed her the thing that I had tried to do.  “Ah,” she said.  “I understand.  I see that you have ideas; now we have to learn a little bit of technique.”  She understood that there was something there that could be developed, which they had not seen.

“For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.”

So that’s how it started with her.  She was fabulous.  I really knew her very well, because I was there four years.  I saw her absolutely every single week.  I went for my hour’s lesson, and then at the Conservatoire. Because she was not primarily a composer, though her sister had been, she was not allowed to teach composition.  Can you imagine? And she taught Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, and many, many other people.  So instead, she taught the cours d’accompagnement—piano accompaniment—which turned into a composition class: how to arrange things, doing figured bass, sight reading from a score, and all those sorts of things.  It was not normal piano accompaniment.  And so that was really wonderful.

FJO:  So all these people who studied composition with her were studying privately with her.

TM:  Yes.  They had the option to go to Conservatoire—whether they did or not I have no idea—but she had her classes at home in a great big sitting room with an organ right there and, of course, a piano which is where she sat. And I sat to one side.  Then you could talk about what you’d been working on, and she’d go over it.  What to me is very interesting was I had come from Edinburgh. To me, Donald Francis Tovey is a god and one of the most important people in my musical life, though I never met him.  He died in ’40 and I arrived in ’47.  I studied with his assistant, Mary Grierson.  I did piano with her.  But I think I read absolutely every single word he ever wrote.  So what I learned from him was what he called long-term harmonic planning.  In other words, the overall direction of things are mainly from a harmonic point of view.  Whereas, with Nadia, although of course she knew that, it was much more detailed, how a moment goes to the next.  Those two together is what it takes.

Nadia Boulanger (seated in front of a piano) with a large group of students.

Nadia Boulanger’s 1953 class at the Paris Conservatoire; Thea Musgrave is standing in the back row.

FJO:  So tell me more about that piece that almost got you failed in Scotland that Nadia saw the promise in.

TM:  I have no idea what it is.  I’ve lost it. It was probably terrible, but somehow she saw something.

FJO:  Was it an orchestra piece?

TM:  I absolutely don’t remember.

FJO:  That’s a pity, because it seems like that piece was perhaps the earliest example of that very elusive and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon of you finding your own voice as a composer. How this happens and how to develop it is a very important lesson.

Pencils, a pair of glasses, scissors, a box of tissues and a sheet of music manuscript paper on a desk.

Thea Musgrave’s composing desk.

TM:  I’ll tell you one of the main sources which is, again, very extraordinary.  I always tell my students, “Don’t forget about coincidences.”  In the ‘60s, round about ’64, ’65, a long time ago, I had a dream one night.  I had just started conducting, and in my dream I was conducting an orchestra and suddenly one of the players stood up and defied me.  I tried to go on and couldn’t. Then I suddenly said, “Brass, stand up.  And shut him up.”  I woke up and I burst out laughing.  That night, I went out to dinner with some friends which we’d already arranged and I said, “I had the most hilarious dream.” I told them and we all had a good laugh about it.  I swear to you, the very next morning, a letter arrived in the post from Birmingham, England.  Would I write an orchestra piece for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?  So guess what?  I wrote a piece, and halfway through, the clarinet player stands up and does something quite different.  Then he/she gets other people to stand up by suggesting tunes that they might like to play.  There are about five or six players standing up. Finally the conductor gets the brass to their feet, and things are resolved and they sit down.  Some years later that work had its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Ormandy asked me to conduct.  I said, “Yes, that’s wonderful.  How exciting! I’m honored,” and all those things.  So two hours rehearsal.  I told him, “I can do it in two hours if I have half an hour with six players.”  I arrived that morning and there were the six players sort of saying, “The Philadelphia Orchestra is really good.  We don’t do sectional rehearsals with this orchestra.  What’s this?”  So I said to them, “I’ve asked you to come because you defy the conductor, and you’re independent of the conductor.”  “Oh.”  “I want to explain to you what I’m doing, and how you are doing something slightly different.”  So we went through it all, and they did their bit so that they would see what was happening. I was conducting and they couldn’t hear anything because the orchestra wasn’t there, but when the rest of the orchestra came in, they were all set.

FJO:  Now so when you say they defy the conductor and they asked other players to play tunes they like, is this an indeterminate thing?  Can they play any tune they want?

TM:  No, no.  It’s all worked out.  This is one of the things about being practical.  I arranged a way of doing the score which is not in a tempo.  There are big, big long bars, and I always put a big arrow with a big black center.  And that means the conductor gives the downbeat.  At that point, the players continue to play in the same tempo, but they’re not necessarily together.  So it’s like a cadenza, but several people are playing.  They don’t necessarily match.  And then the conductor or the player can give cues.  If the conductor gives cues, there’s a sort of hollow arrow, so I point there to the horn or here to the cello or here to the brass.  Or whatever.  The part of the soloist—in this case a clarinet—will be written on a separate line.  What they are doing is underneath, but they all see the clarinet and so they know, “Okay, now I switch to this.”  That’s how the score works.

FJO:  But that still means that no two performances are ever going to be exactly the same.

TM:  Right.

FJO:  So in that sense, it is indeterminate music.

“Any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.”

TM:  Well, any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.  It’s always a little bit different, thank goodness.  But this reminds me of something.  When I was starting out and was very inexperienced and didn’t quite know how to hear my scores, I was very jealous of painters because a painter finishes his painting and invites friends in to look.  And they all say, “Geez, that’s wonderful.  How nice!”  Well, if I put a score of my music up, who’s going to read it?  Very few people.  Even for musicians, it’s difficult to read an orchestral score.  So I was jealous of painters.  But then I discovered performers.  It’s like writing a play.  You can read a play, but you don’t really know what it sounds like until you have great actors.  They transform it.  And the same with music.  You have great performers.  I’ve been lucky to have worked with some of them.  They transform it, and again, it’s not exactly the same every time. They take a little bit more room around this phrase or, if there’s something a little bit improvised, they might do something a little different.  And so on.  So the performers are intrinsic to the whole thing.

FJO:  Even more than it resembles a play, the Clarinet Concerto is almost like choreography in terms of the way the soloist is required to maneuver from section to section. And I imagine that this is something that gets, at least in part, transformed by the personality of the soloist. The person who premiered it was one of the great performers.

TM:  A wonderful performer, Gervase de Peyer.  The Clarinet Concerto is like a concerto grosso.  There are the tutti sections where everybody is together and then there are solo concertante sections, where Gervase played—here to start with, and then he moved through the violas and second violins over there and played in that section.  So he’s controlling the players in that part of the orchestra by this system of cues.  They follow not because he’s conducting, but by the way he played his cues.  And then there are these black arrows I talked about for the conductor to hold the synchronization points together.  Then there’s another tutti section during which Gervase went over to play with the horns and other clarinets and I forget what else.  Oh yes, I brought in a new instrument.  When I was in Paris, I went to a dance company and I heard an accordion played with a clarinet, and I thought, that’s wonderful.  It blends really well.  So I brought in an accordion.  Then there’s that concertante section and again, another tutti section.  Gervase goes far stage right, this being my left hand, but it’s stage right if you’re looking at the orchestra, playing there with the harp and percussion. I think the flute, even though the flute’s over here, joins in, and then finally comes back to the start.  So he made a circle of the orchestra.

FJO: Another piece of yours which involves spatialization and which was also premiered by a very famous soloist, was your equally fascinating Horn Concerto.

TM:  Oh, Barry Tuckwell.  Gervase de Peyer and Barry were actually both in the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Players at a certain point, even though they both came from London.  Well, Barry comes from Australia, but he was living in London.  It’s really funny.  He was coming back, flying over the Atlantic, and he suddenly thought, “You know, a horn can do quartertones.”  Because of our very strange music system, some of the notes are out of tune.  A G-flat and an F-sharp are different pitches.  When you do it on the piano, of course, you can’t change the pitch. But if you’re a singer or a player, you alter pitch a little bit because of the harmonies.  Pianists can’t.  It’s very interesting if you tune up to a C, in octaves.  You get a C to C.  If you tune up in perfect fifths, and they are true, you arrive at a B-sharp, which is not the same note as a C.  There’s a word for that.  I forget what it is.

FJO:  The Pythagorean comma.

TM:  Whatever, yes.  Anyway, it’s not the same note, and that’s why piano tuners have to tune the fifth a tiny bit flat, so that you have a beat in there of like one nanosecond or something like that.  So horn valves are tuned exactly and they adjust; that’s how you can make a quartertone scale because you’re using these out of tune harmonics.  So in the middle of the concerto to have ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba—twelve notes going down—is totally fabulous.  And I did it in some other places.  Horn players have looked at me and said, “What’s this?  This can’t be done.”  I said, “Well, I hope I got the fingerings right.  They’re actually Barry’s fingerings, so you know, it should be okay.”

FJO:  In addition to those wonderful quartertones, the other really unusual aspect of the piece is that at one point the horn section plays in the audience.

TM:  They go out into the hall, and that’s also funny. It’s halfway though the cadenza. I didn’t write the notes in, I just wrote gestures. And then there are real pitches, then it’s another gesture.  When we did it in the Albert Hall, which is a big hall, Barry disappeared and I thought, “What’s happened?” He came back a little bit out of breath, and I said, “Barry, are you okay?”  He said, “Well, I was just checking how long it would take a horn player from the platform to get out into the back of the hall to the new place where they have to stand.  I can always lengthen those little gestures if I need to, to give the horn players time to get there.”

FJO:  There’s a funny story you mentioned to someone you did an interview with some years ago about how in one of the performances of that piece, the horn players were actually blocking the exits.

TM:  That was in Hong Kong.  I didn’t know about it, but one of the Hong Kong people came to Barry and said, “What happens if the people here don’t like it?”  And Barry said, as quick as a flash, “Well, they may not.  But there’s a horn player guarding every exit so they can’t get out.”  I love that.  He didn’t tell me.  I heard about it years later.

FJO:  Now, one thing about all this that I have to confess is that although I know both of these pieces, I have only listened to them on recordings.  I have never witnessed either of them in a live performance.

TM:  It was done with the New York Phil with Sarah Caldwell, but she changed the seating.  She brought them all to the front, which wasn’t the point.  But whatever.

FJO: But the point I want to make here is that they sound fabulous on recordings, but obviously if listeners are not seeing all these thing you’ve been describing, they’re missing a very important aspect of your conception of these pieces.

TM:  Well, we have to have lots of live performances.

FJO:  Ideally, but at least nowadays there are other ways people can watch performances; there are many performances posted to YouTube, Vimeo, and other platforms. Although the sound quality for a lot of them is terrible, at least people could see the visual aspect. There are also DVDs, Blu-ray discs, etc. But all this begs the question: you’re a composer, so the key element for you is still ultimately sound, right? You mentioned artists being able to show their paintings to people, whereas composers can’t show people a score and expect them to appreciate it. But we do have recordings, although if they’re just audio recordings they’ll be missing an important ingredient in several of your works.

TM:  What can I say?  The music has to sound right.  If the sound quality is awful, that’s really off putting. But I think the visual element can add to it.  Recently the Horn Concerto was done in London with Martin Owen, another wonderful player.  I was talking to him beforehand and I said, “Your part is cued into these players. They’re way out in the audience, but you don’t have to worry about it at all.  Just play the way you would play comfortably, dramatically, it’s yours.  You don’t have to worry at all.  However, if you feel you can do a little signal, like you do in chamber music, in the direction of the player who is responding, the audience will hear it better because they’ll see it.”  They’ll see Martin giving the cue over there.  And they’ll look, and then they’ll hear the horn responding.  They’ll hear it better.  It adds to the drama and hopefully to the audience’s enjoyment and appreciation.  But it’s not actually necessary.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave's music.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave’s music.

FJO:  Interesting.  Another divide among composers, beyond all the “isms,” is between composers of instrumental music and composers of vocal music, particularly dramatic vocal music such as opera or musical theater. Years ago we did a talk with Joan Tower and she claimed that although there are a few very notable exceptions, the majority of composers are on one side of the fence or the other. She was about to write her first choral piece at the time, and it turned out that it was quite wonderful, but she thought of herself as an instrumental composer. You’ve been equally in both worlds.

TM:  Oh yes, like Britten was.  And I’ve written a lot of choral music.  But they’re different sound worlds, and they need a different kind of attention.

FJO: Although we have not yet talked about any of your operas, the way that you approach a lot of the instrumental pieces that we have been talking about is in a narrative, almost theatrical way, like what you were just saying about seeing a player respond to a cue adding to the drama.

TM:  That happens in chamber music when there’s no conductor.  In a quartet, the leader with the bow will say now and give an upbeat. There’s nothing new about that.  It’s just that the horn didn’t have to do that, but I said it just helps the audience to hear.

FJO:  Well even though it’s done all the time, it’s mostly taken for granted I think. But you’ve actually foregrounded this phenomenon in your music.

“I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.”

TM:  When I started doing this, I thought, “Oh, I have to have a word.” So I called it “dramatic abstract” because we’ve been talking about the Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto and they’re not programmatic pieces.  They have a form, but it’s abstract.  However, I’ve written other pieces where they’re not abstract; it’s programmatic, like Turbulent Landscapes, which is based on pictures of Turner and so on, and so I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces of yours actually is a concerto you wrote for marimba and wind ensemble.

TM:  Journey Through a Japanese Landscape–a concerto for solo percussion and an orchestra without strings! It was very exciting to work with Evelyn Glennie.  Have you met her?

FJO:  I did an interview with her many years ago.

TM:  You know, she’s really deaf, but she lip reads just extraordinarily.  She heard, I think, until she was about 11 or 12, so she has a nice Scot accent, which you will have heard.  And she’s from Aberdeen, I think.  When I wrote this piece for her, I never talked to her about her deafness.  I thought, that’s it.  I know about it.  So the only thing I did differently was not to give her aural cues.  She takes visual cues, or cues from the conductor, but not aural cues from other members of the orchestra.  She gives them, because they can hear, but she doesn’t take them.

FJO: I love her recording of it and I also recently discovered a great performance of it online by this group based in Portugal. Because it’s scored just for winds, it theoretically could get many more performances than an orchestra piece and certainly more rehearsals, since there are so many wind bands all over the country as well as all over the world and they don’t have the same kind of limitations on rehearsal time that orchestras do.

TM:  I haven’t done very much with the wind band, just a couple of pieces. But it’s always exciting to work on a slightly less familiar medium, for me that is–makes me consider new ideas. I like to work with everything.  You know, just what happens, what comes along.

FJO: You mentioned that you’ve written a lot of choral music. That’s another medium where you can explore more unconventional ideas since, if it’s a school ensemble, you can rehearse the whole semester. And the same is also true with many community choruses.

TM:  I love it. But I did one very unusual piece which I don’t recommend, again for practical reasons. I don’t know if you’ve come across Voices of Power and Protest.  It’s an anti-war piece for which I wrote the words. Part of it’s on YouTube. It’s not complete; for some reason they weren’t allowed to do the whole thing.  Anyway, an opera chorus is used to memorizing and being blocked, and is usually accompanied by an orchestra.  A [stand alone] chorus is not used to being blocked.  They’re usually standing in rows, and they’re on book and are often unaccompanied, or maybe with a piano or organ.  I thought it would be great if they could be off book and would become the set themselves.  It’s a piece about civil wars.  At one point, the chorus comes into two lines and makes a wall between two singers, two brothers who are separated like in the American Civil War.  Then some of these are prisoners, so the singers surround this person.  And so on.  I made a libretto where the chorus could act it out by the way they moved and the shapes that they made.  Harold Rosenbaum did it with his New York Virtuoso Singers and Dottie Danner directed it. It was done right here in the hall at Ethical Culture and was really fabulous.  However, it’s really not practical because they have to have many, many more rehearsals to be off book. It was very expensive to put on, so I can’t get that work going.  Eventually it maybe could be done with a much bigger chorus surrounding on book, and then the soloists would have to be off book, because there are some solo parts, but then the group of singers would do the movement and make the shapes that a big chorus could surround, something like that.  But I was very excited by that work. Harold did a wonderful job, and it was done at the U.N. as well as [at the New York Society for] Ethical Culture.

FJO: You’ve written a lot of imminently practical choral pieces though. I’m quite fond of the series of pieces you wrote based on poems that you read in the subway.

TM: Oh, On the Underground.  I was going out to Richmond in London to meet some viol players, because I didn’t know much about viols and I had to learn about the frets and all this kind of thing. While I was going—in the Tube we call it—they have poetry up on the thing.  There are one or two in New York, but they’re too full of ads.  There’s very few, but in London there were a lot at one time.  I saw this poem, and I thought, “Oh, I want to set that.” So I quickly got started writing it down, and you know, then the Tube got there, and so what am I going to do? Then I found a book in the bookstore called On the Underground with all the poems that were up on the Tubes.  So I did three sets of Undergrounds.  And all the poems came from what actually you can see on the Underground, including one by Edwin Morgan about a seat with a small hole in it and under that there is a tank with piranha fish and the passengers get eaten. There are some absolutely hilarious and gory ones, as well as beautiful ones.

Thea Musgrave sitting across from FJO.

FJO:  Getting back to your idea of dramatizing an orchestra, or any instrumental ensemble for that matter, music obviously can convey emotions even when there are no words.

TM:  Of course.

FJO:  But usually it can only directly communicate what it is, as it were—the sounds of the instruments, the form.  Music communicates music.  You’ve played around with that idea in a dramatic way, too.  One aspect of many of your pieces is that they reference snippets of pre-existing music.  One particularly interesting example of this is Memento Vitae, something you wrote for the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, which uses passages from the Sixth Symphony and also from the Opus 135 String Quartet.

TM:  Using quotes.

FJO:  I think in doing that you’re able to conjure up a sound world, provided the audience knows the pre-existing music.  That music become a signifier that has a dramatic meaning.  People will think, “Ah, Beethoven.” Whereas if you just had chords that were your own chords exclusively, they would just mean those chords.

TM:  It’s like in a book you read with quotes from other people.  It refers back to another time. Not that you can copy that other time—it is then and relived now—but you can quote and then comment. There’s usually a dramatic reason for doing it.  I’ve done that sometimes.  I think Charles Ives did that.

FJO:  Yes, quite famously. There’s a whole cottage industry among musicologists of trying to figure out what all these quotes are because some of the tunes he referenced didn’t survive.

TM:  You know, something very interesting, Rabbie Burns—Robert Burns as you say it, we say Rabbie Burns. There’s something you perhaps don’t know, and I didn’t know it either, then I found it by chance because I wanted to use some of his tunes when I did Songs for a Winter’s Evening.  I found out there were tunes that existed way back when, and he then wrote the words to preserve the tunes.  He wrote the words to existing tunes.  These tunes were often fiddle tunes, so they had a very wide range which was difficult for ordinary people like me to sing.  So in the 19th century, they kept the words and re-wrote some of the tunes—much more banal.  I went back to the original tunes for Songs for a Winter’s Evening, which are wonderful and sometimes with interesting scales—not just the normal diatonic scale, but the Lydian mode or something like that.  They’re fascinating.  However, I didn’t just set the tunes.  I had the tunes somewhere in the orchestra, sometimes in the voice, but sometimes not in the voice.  Sometimes they’re singing words, not to the tunes but to something else, but the tune is always lurking there.

FJO:  So this begs the question: how important is it that members of an audience hearing a piece of yours that references some pre-existing music know what that music is?

TM:  Well, any Scot would know some of these tunes or they would recognize that there was a tune there even if they didn’t already know it.

FJO:  But an American wouldn’t.

TM:  Ah, they might.  You all sing Auld Lang Syne.

FJO:  Yes.

TM:  Everybody does.

FJO:  Another example, which for me is one of the most effective ways that you used a pre-existing tune, is in your opera based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  You used “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” That tune becomes sort of an idée fixe throughout the entire opera.  You change the harmonies underneath it, or you use a hunk of it, and then another hunk again.  It becomes a musical commentary on the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  And it works so effectively I think because we all know this tune.

TM:  Well, if you don’t know the tune, perhaps you get to know it.

FJO:  You do hear it a lot.

“I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved. The parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”

TM:  The other thing was I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved.  My husband, Peter [Mark], who conducted the premiere in Virginia, said, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of rehearsal time.”  So the next thing I said was, “Don’t worry. This is what I’m planning to do.  They don’t have to be in costume, because they don’t actually go on stage.  They just have to have a very simple something, maybe a head dress of some sort, one or two may carry lanterns.  And all they have to sing is ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.’”  They come on through the audience at the very end of the opera.  They just come slowly down the aisle, up to where the stage is, and that’s when the opera ends.  And I said, “You know what, the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”  I’m not Scot for nothing.

FJO:  That’s practicality.  Now, in Mary, Queen of Scots, it sounds like you’re also using some Elizabethan music, but I can’t place what it is.

TM:  Well, you know what, at one point I needed a pavanne.  We were in Santa Barbara and I thought I can’t be bothered to get in the car—this was before the internet—and drive out to the university, find a pavanne, and drive back.  So I’ll just invent one.  It’s not a real one.  I mean it’s real, but it’s mine.  I saved myself a trip 20 miles out to the university and back, half an hour there and half an hour back.  I didn’t have an hour to spare.  That’s what happened.

FJO:  Here I was, scratching my head, thinking I should have known what it was since it seemed like it has some real dramatic meaning in the opera.

TM:  It’s just a pavanne.  Just for dancing.

FJO:  But it could have had some additional coded meaning, depending on whether it was an English pavanne or a Scottish pavanne, since the opera is all about events that ultimately led to their unification.

TM:  Nothing like that.  Just laziness.

FJO:  Oh well. Another interesting story I came across related to this opera is that after it premiered in Scotland there was talk of doing the American premiere at the Virginia Opera. This was shortly after your husband Peter became the company’s artistic director. You tried to talk the company out of doing it. This might be the first instance I know of any composer trying to discourage a performance.

TM:  I said to Peter, “You can’t do it.”  This is his company.  A contemporary opera? Norfolk’s not ready for that.  And Walter Chrysler, who made the Chrysler Building, was living in Norfolk with his wife.  She came to Edinburgh to see the premiere, which I was conducting.  She happened to be sitting next to Plácido [Domingo], which she rather liked.  When she came back, she said, “What’s good enough for Edinburgh is good enough for Norfolk.”  She told Walter that and so the president of the board, Edythe Harrison, decided they would do it.  I didn’t encourage it.  I was very nervous.  I wanted Peter not to have problems with bringing in his wife’s opera.  But in Richmond, they said, “Next time we should have a Richmond composer.  Not a Norfolk composer.”  That’s what they said.  You wouldn’t believe it.

FJO:  This unification story is obviously very significant in the history of Scotland, but now with the way the world is going, with various independence movements around the world, it seems more universal as well as very timely.

TM:  It was Mary Queen of Scots’ son who united the two kingdoms in 1603. And now Brexit happened! There was a vote for Scotland about a year before to separate.  I couldn’t vote, because I live here in America, but at that point, I would have stayed together.  Now I don’t know what I would do.

FJO:  Well, I guess why it’s so important is that in many ways King James’s mother was really a catalyst for a lot of these things.  She had her eye on the throne of England. She had been married to the king of France, which almost united France and Scotland. There was all this intrigue.

TM:  It’s a very complicated story.  Somebody else started the libretto, but I took over for a very simple reason.  She was a much better writer than I am, but I said to her, “For this aria, this poetry here is just too long dramatically.  It has to be cut.”  “Oh, those are my best words!”  I said, “I know, but it’s too long.” You need to have moments, but they can’t go on too long.  So, at that moment, I thought I’m going to do my own [libretto].  I’m not a great poet, but I make sure the right word with the right vowel sound is on the high note and so on, move it around so it matches the musical line that I want to do.  The words come first, but then you can alter them.  And when you write about history, you sort of have to be accurate.  You can cheat a little bit because you can’t do everything, but there came the moment when Mary lost her husband and she marries Bothwell. I said to her, “Mary, don’t marry Bothwell. Can’t you see it’s really stupid to do that?”  Well, she didn’t take my advice, and then look what happened!

FJO:  You can’t rewrite history.

TM:  You can’t go back.  You can’t change that now.

FJO:  Well, I suppose you could.  You could have gone in the direction of speculative fiction and alternate reality.

TM:  Whatever.  Yeah, what if such and such had happened?

FJO:  But that would have been a very different opera than the one you wrote, which is really an historical panorama. There are so many characters in it.  It’s called Mary, Queen of Scots, but she’s actually just one of many significant characters.

TM:  It’s really her and her half-brother [James Stuart]. He was a bastard and could not really be king.  Then there’s Morton and Ruthven, who were James’s henchmen, then Bothwell.  Those are the prime characters.  And then Darnley, her husband, and Riccio who’s a musician. But it’s really Mary and James’s struggle.

FJO:  To me it seems more an ensemble piece than it is about Mary, even though you named it after her and she does get that great high note at the end.

TM:  It revolves around her.  Her arrival at Leith in the fog.  Nobody’s there.  It’s her arrival and her departure.  At the end of the opera, her child is just a baby, and she has to get out fast.  A portcullis comes down upstage. Everybody’s left behind and she’s downstage in front of the portcullis.  At the last minute, she reaches back for her baby and she’s separated by this curtain.  She can’t go back.  So there she is in the hands of Elizabeth and the baby who eventually unites the two kingdoms is left in Scotland.

FJO:  That high note she sings towards the end sounds monstrously difficult.  Is that an example of something that is actually easier to do than it sounds, as opposed to something that really is very difficult?

TM: Well, if she hadn’t sung it, I would have changed the note.

FJO:  You would have changed it?

TM:  Yes, of course.  Sometimes I put in ossia.  You need the performers to be comfortable.  Most singers have a top C.  I mean sopranos, dramatic sopranos like Ashley [Putnam].  It’s not a problem.  If it had been a problem, then I’d have said sing an A instead.  What’s the deal?

FJO:  Wow, well the deal for me as a listener was that was the most exciting moment of the entire opera.

“Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.”

TM:  Sure.  Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.  You don’t want the singer to be embarrassed.  I’ll tell you a funny story, which is relevant.  When I was studying with Copland—my first visit to the States was to study with Aaron at Tanglewood—during our lessons he said, “When I wrote my Clarinet Concerto, I wrote in this top A way up for Benny Goodman.  And Benny Goodman said to me, ‘I can’t play that.’”  And Aaron said to him, “Well, I’ve heard you play that note.”  He said, “Ah, when I’m improvising. If I’m in the mood, I can play it. But sometimes I’m not in the mood and I don’t play it.”  Several years later, Peter and I were in Santa Barbara.  We happened to meet Benny Goodman.  So I sat him down, and I said, “I have to ask you if this true.”  So I told him the story, I said, “Is it true that Aaron said this and you said that?”  He said, “Of course.”

So it’s the same thing.  When you do a cadenza or something free, you have the freedom for a player— like Barry [Tuckwell] in the cadenza in the Horn Concerto can sometimes go way up high, if he’s in the mood that day.  But he doesn’t have to do it if he’s not in the mood.  So there are moments it’s appropriate.  There are moments it’s not appropriate. Of course I prefer the top C, but if Ashley felt she was not going to sing it beautifully, an A is fine.  Not as good, but it’s okay.  But she never did that; she was right there.  She was wonderful.  It was right at the beginning of her career.  She was in her 20s.

FJO:  I’m very glad it got preserved on a recording, even though now it’s out of print.

TM:  A recording’s different.  If the tape is bad, you can re-do a take.  But you know something, that Mary, Queen of Scots recording that you heard is one single take on one single night.  The musicians’ union allowed us one take—period.  We were not allowed to re-record anything. Actually, there are a couple of errors.  I think the chorus came in wrong once.  I don’t remember.  It doesn’t matter; they corrected it very quickly.

FJO:  Wow. It definitely feels very much like a live recording, which is actually very refreshing and somehow more exciting.

TM:  That’s right. When players know they’re recording, in a recording session, they play just a little bit more carefully.  Because they don’t want to make mistakes.  They don’t go for it.  This was a live performance with a big audience, and they went for it.  Yes, there are some errors, but that’s the excitement, which is wonderful.  That’s why you go to live performances—to hear the real thing.

FJO:  But now if people want to hear Mary, Queen of Scots, the only way is to track down that recording, which is now out of print.

TM:  Well, the trouble is it went from the Virginia Opera to Moss Records, and then it went to Novello. There was a fire and the master was destroyed.  I still have some copies of the LP, because those were the days of the LP, so you can make copies of copies. The CD is actually not quite as good as the LP; the LP is actually slightly better.

FJO:  I hope that the master has survived for A Christmas Carol.

TM:  Yes, that wasn’t in the fire. And there were several takes, so we could choose.

FJO:  That also needs to be reissued.

TM: Yeah.

A toy piano rests on top of files of Musgrave's music

FJO:  And you’ve written many other operas, but none of the other evening-length operas have been recorded commercially.  I wish there was a commercial recording of your Harriet Tubman opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses. I’ve never heard a note of it, and I’d love to learn more about it.

TM:  Well, what happened was Gordon Davidson, a very famous person in Los Angeles, ran the whole theater world out there.  He was the director and was wonderful.  And he said, “Harriet is a young person who’s going into a new world.  I don’t want an established, wonderful black singer.  I want somebody who’s in the same kind of situation, starting out.”  So Peter auditioned a number of people and finally found Cynthia Heyman, this young singer who was singing in the Santa Fe Young Artists Program.  Very inexperienced, but a wonderful voice.  We flew out to Los Angeles so Gordon could meet her.

In the fall we did it.  She came and lived in Norfolk for several months and studied.  About four or five days before we opened, she slipped on stage and broke her leg.  So she had a crutch, and she went to Gordon and said, “If you don’t let me go on, I’ll sue you.”  So he said, “What are we going to do?” We had a cover, but Cynthia was determined.  So Gordon said, “Tell you what.  We will go to New York and we will find a dancer who will be a kind of alter ego.  She came in and they quickly built her a costume, but we didn’t find the right hat.  So we said, “Okay, they’ll share the hat.”

At the beginning of the second act where Harriet is being chased by slave capturers, Cynthia obviously couldn’t do that with her crutch.  So she stood stage left, gave her hat to this dancer, the dancer did all the action and escaped from the slave capturers.  Then as she went off stage, she handed the hat back to Cynthia.  You know, tears come to my eyes.  It was so moving.  One of the people in the audience came up after and said, “Cynthia really broke her leg?  I thought that her being on crutches was a metaphor for being a slave.”  Can you imagine?  That was a great moment.  Unintended, but a great moment.

FJO:  I wish I could have seen that.

TM:  I did a chamber orchestra version which is called The Story of Harriet Tubman where there’s spoken dialogue and sometimes, like Brecht used to do, the main character will talk about Harriet in the third person. When she sing, it’s “I.”  But when she’s speaking, it’s “she.”  The characters set up the scene by talking about it.  And sometimes members of the chorus say a few words.  The whole thing is in one act.  It’s much shorter.  It was done in Mobile, and now here in New York; Utopia Opera’s going to do that this coming season.

FJO:  Fantastic!

TM:  They want to do the big one, but I don’t know if they really can because it’s got chorus and orchestra and so on, but Will Remmers is extraordinary.  He’s determined to do it, so I don’t know which version they’ll do.  But either one, I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s either this season or the beginning of next season.

FJO:  And Simón Bolívar and Pontalba are two other operas of yours I’ve still yet to hear.

TM:  Thank you for trying. Bolívar is an incredible story. I got all the books and had his own words, and I can read it sort of.  But I don’t speak Spanish, so I wrote the libretto in English.  Then I thought it really should be in Spanish.  So I thought I have to have somebody.  So Gordon Davidson introduced me to Lillian Groag, a playwright and an actress who lives in L.A. She’s actually Argentinian, so she’s a native speaker.  The first time we met was in the late ‘80s, I think.  She came up to Santa Barbara where we were living, and we started working together.  It was very interesting.  At one point, I forget who says it, Bolívar or somebody else, “Decisions made today cast a long shadow.”  There are nice ahh vowels and good consonants.  But Lillian said, “I can’t do that in Spanish.”  So I said, “We’re not going to do a translation word for word.  Let’s make a version which sort of means the same thing, but not exactly word for word.”  So, she looked back at it and said, “Las decisiones de hoy te seguirán mañana.” Decisions of today follow you tomorrow.  “Mañana” for “cast a long shadow.”  The same kinds of vowels and consonants.  It works perfectly.  So that’s how we worked all through the opera.  Sometimes I’d alter the English, so that I could have the right word to match the Spanish word on the right top note.  But I never called it a translation.  I called it a version. I said I want it be wonderful Spanish.  It’s got to sound natural.  It was an absolutely fascinating collaboration.  I loved every moment of it.  And she had directed plays, so she was very experienced in that, but she’d never actually directed an opera.  So Peter brought her in the previous year to do something else, so she’d get her feet wet.  I think she did a Tosca. Then she directed Bolívar at the premiere.  That was wonderful. And then she became a great friend.

FJO:  It’s very nice to hear about this collaboration, especially after learning that you initially had a librettist with Mary, Queen of Scots, but then you went on to write your own libretto because it was too frustrating having that give and take.  You’ve actually written the librettos for all of your operas after that, except in this one instance.

TM:  Yes.  Before that, I had worked with other people.  But then I enjoyed doing it.  I’m not a great writer.  I’m an okay writer.  But for me, the words really had to go with the music. I cheated once in Mary, Queen of Scots.  I have James sing at the end of his big aria “Rule I must.”  So it’s “Ruuuule I Muuusssst.”  Good vowel at the end consonant cut off.  Well, I didn’t want to put “Rule I must” in the libretto.  The written words looked so phony, so I put “I must rule.”  But that’s not what’s in the score.  Don’t tell anybody.

FJO:  You just did.

TM:  Right.  I cheated.

FJO:  You’ve written three large pieces based on stories that are very much American or Pan-American themed: Harriet Tubman, Simón Bolívar, and the Baroness de Pontalba in New Orleans.

TM:  Nah’lins.  I had to learn how to say that.  It’s not New Orleans.  It’s Nah’lins.  One syllable.  I had to be trained by my friends there how to pronounce this word.

FJO:  The current mode of thinking is that we see everything, we create everything, we do everything through the prism of our own identity. I have very mixed feelings about that way of thinking, and it seems like you do, too. Whenever people have asked you if you think of yourself as a Scottish composer or an American composer, you’ve balked at that, which you’ve also done when people ask you about being a female composer. There’s your famous quote, “Yes I am a woman, and yes I am a composer, but rarely at the same time.”

TM:  Apparently I said that to my dear friend Claire Brook, whom I knew for many years. She was also a student of Boulanger and lived in New York with her husband, and worked for Norton as the head of music books.  Apparently I said that to her and we had a good laugh about it.  She quoted me somewhere, so it has become famous.  I feel very strongly that identity is where you are as a kid and where you have grown up.  Those memories and influences are there in your whole formation for life.  However, when you move somewhere different, or you meet other people, that influences that somewhat.  It changes you; you think in different ways.  Since I’ve come to America, I think in slightly different ways.  But nevertheless, the core is still where I grew up, who my parents were, how I lived as a kid.  With all of us, it has to be like that.  You can’t cheat on that.  You can grow, and you develop, and you can develop in different ways, and you have some choice in how you develop.

FJO:  So where does gender fit into that?  Or does it?

TM:  I think it’s nurture or nature.  I think women have to make up their minds what they want to do.  Women bear kids, but they don’t necessarily have to look after them.  In the 19th century in Britain in middle class families, they all had nannies.  They didn’t actually bring up the children themselves.  The children had to behave themselves and appeared at dinner time, and they had to sort of sit quietly and not say too much.  That doesn’t happen now.  Very poor families, that was different.  They didn’t have nannies, but they had to be on their own much more, because the parents probably had to go out and work.  So you make choices.  I think women have the choice, as men can have the choice, of what they do and how they do it.  Why not?

“Only when I came here, people said, ‘Oh, you’re a woman composer.’ I said, ‘Really? I never thought of that.'”

It’s very funny, when I was in Britain I never really thought about that question because I studied with a woman.  My first teacher in Edinburgh was Mary Grierson, who was Tovey’s assistant, and then Nadia in Paris.  And a lot of my friends were women. Priaulx Rainier and Lizzie Lutyens, whose dad was a famous architect who did New Delhi—Edwin Lutyens.  That’s why we had to go to India; I wanted to see Liz’s father’s work.  Excellent.  Of course I knew men composers, too, and we talked about composing.  We never really talked—I’m a woman, so I do something different.  No way.  We were composers.  There are also gay composers.  Where does that fit in?  I think it’s not a very interesting question.  Only when I came here, people said, “Oh, you’re a woman composer.”  I said, “Really?  I never thought of that.”

FJO:  Now one thing that you have to be thinking about and certainly your publishing company is making a big deal about it, is you’re turning 90 next year.

The covers for Novello's two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs--one for instrumental works and one for operas.

The covers for Novello’s two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs–one for her instrumental works and one for her operas.

TM:  Turning 90.  Yeah, that’s another question.  I mean, I think I’m going to go backwards now.  Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off.  But that happens to men too, okay.

FJO:  Yes.  We actually recently did a talk for NewMusicBox with another one-time Boulanger student, George Walker, who’s 95 and just completed his fifth symphony.

TM:  Oh wow.

FJO:  He’s still actively composing and so are you.  It’s wonderful, but it also begs a question. You talked about how your childhood experiences formed who you are. But is there something that you feel—having reached this stage, having composed for decades, and having all this experience—that you can do now as a composer that you couldn’t do before?  Has the passage of time changed you?

TM:  Yes, of course.  But you know something very extraordinary happened recently.  I’m not sure it quite answers your question, but I’ll tell you about it.  In the summer we go to escape the summer heat.  We go out to California. When I just got there in the middle of July, I got an email from somebody I didn’t recognize. I nearly didn’t open the email because there’s all this hacking and so on.  But then I saw it was copied to somebody who is a great friend of mine, so I opened it.  The letter said, “Are you interested in a commission?”  So, I answered, “It all depends.”

Then I got this long email from this person who’s obviously a therapist, because my friend is a therapist. She had been to a performance of one of my works about ten years ago, something to do with light, she said.  She liked it so much that she and her husband had then gone to London to hear it when it was repeated there a year or two later.  Well, she’s lost her husband and she’s dying of lung cancer.  She wants to leave something of beauty in the world, so she wanted to commission me to write something to do with light and something with an important cello part for her friend Josephine Knight.

So, I thought, “What can she be thinking about? Something of beauty in the world?” My thought then went to Journey Into Light, which is the name of the piece that she heard, and I suddenly thought, “What happens if I put a cello in there instead of a singer?”  And I started.  Then I thought, “I can’t do this. Nothing’s been arranged. I haven’t told my publisher.” But I kept saying if the cello did this, then I could do that.  I was writing the piece. So I emailed my publisher and told them what had happened.  “Do you know Josephine Knight?”  “Yes, of course.  She’s wonderful.  Go ahead.”  And I got going.  Well, I still haven’t had a contract.  I finished the piece in six weeks, which I never do, and we have a first performance arranged on February 3 with the BBC Philharmonic with Josephine Knight.  I have never written anything as fast as that, ever.  In part it’s because it’s sort of based on the other piece; some of the material is repeated. But it’s not the same piece.  It has become something different because I didn’t have the words, you know.  There’s no singer.  The words aren’t there.  So there are certain themes, like the Dies Irae. You were talking about themes.  Well, I’ve used that theme in quite a number of works.  It’s for death and for the anger.  God is angered, Dies Irae.  So here it is.  It was already in Journey Into Light.  I decided I’m not going to give it the same title, so I called it From Darkness Into the Light.  And what happens is that certain instruments represent the darkness. The darkness is not necessarily death.  It’s to do with any kind of difficult decision that you’re faced with and how you come to terms with it.  So the cellist is coming to terms and finally comes to terms with the horn player, who’s been leading the darkness.  They end in the light, and I found a wonderful way of doing this light.

Then, next coincidence, I come back here and there’s a pile of mail.  Mostly bullshit, you know, all the fundraising things that you get. And in the middle of it, I see this thing from my friend Nicholas Daniel, who has a festival in Leicester, England.  I open it up to see what Nick’s doing this year, and you know the title of the festival?  “From Darkness to Light.”  So, I write to him, “Darling, you’ve stolen my title.  What’s this?”  And he writes, “Bitch, you stole my title!”  When he was a kid, he had a beautiful soprano voice.  He sang in Salisbury Cathedral at Easter time.  All the lights of the cathedral would be turned off, and there would be one person with a single candle going up in a procession.  And he said, “That was what illuminated my childhood.”  So that’s why he called it that.  Talk about coincidence! I mean, nobody knew about this.  This is a brand new work.  I hadn’t told him about it or anything.  So, there we are.  I don’t think I could have done that earlier.

“I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.”

Also I think sometimes, like when I had this dream I told you about of the player rebelling, sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens.  I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, “Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.” You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, “Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.”

Another thing Boulanger always said to me—you didn’t write on computers in those days; you wrote with pencil and paper, or pen and paper—she said don’t ever erase anything, because sometimes you go back to the very earliest idea, and there’s the nugget of something that’s absolutely essential to the thing.  You don’t say that’s a bad idea.  You put it there and something will come out of it.  So I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.

FJO facing Peter Mark and Thea Musgrave who are seated next to each other on a couch.

After we finished recording our conversation, Thea’s husband Peter Mark joined her on their couch and we continued chatting more informally.

George Walker: Concise and Precise

The shocking massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 prompted composer George Walker to pay tribute to its nine victims in his latest orchestra work, Sinfonia No. 5.

“I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston,” Walker explained when we visited him at his home in Montclair, New Jersey. “I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.”

While it’s certainly not the first time a composer felt compelled to create music in response to a great tragedy, what makes Walker’s case much rarer is that when he completed the composition last year he was 94 years old. When we visited Juan Orrego-Salas in 2014, just a few weeks after his 95th birthday, he told us he stopped composing shortly after he turned 90, claiming that he had written all he had to write. Admittedly, there have been some significant works by nonagenarians—Havergal Brian’s last two symphonies, Jeronimas Kačinskas’s fourth string quartet, Leo Ornstein’s last two piano sonatas, and tons of pieces by Elliott Carter, who then went on to compose 18 works after his 100th birthday. But, to the best of my knowledge, Walker’s new symphonic work is the only such piece by a living composer that age. Certainly, it’s the only work by a prominent living nonagenarian whose music has been featured on dozens of recordings and who has received the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

But what perhaps makes Walker’s story even more unusual is that while he is now arguably the eldest statesman among still-active composers, he began his career as a child prodigy. He started studying the piano at the age of five, composing as a teenager, and had become something of a cause célèbre by his early 20s. He made his New York piano recital debut at Town Hall at the age of 23 in a program of mostly standard repertoire, which also featured three of his own compositions. In a review published the following morning in The New York Times, Walker was hailed as “an authentic talent of marked individuality and fine musical insight.” The following year, Walker’s still popular Lyric for String Orchestra (originally titled Lament), which he had arranged from a movement of his first string quartet written in memory of his grandmother, received its premiere in a radio broadcast conducted by his Curtis classmate and good friend Seymour Lipkin.

“Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor,” Walker remembered. “I said to him, ‘If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?’ Just like that. … It was just right on the spot. And he said yes. So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it.”

Following this initial success, Walker began a wide range of works, spanning repertoire for solo piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, chorus, and numerous songs. Throughout the ensuing seven decades, he has remained a staunch champion of traditional classical forms—to date, he was written ten sonatas, two string quartets, and formidable concertos for piano, violin, cello, and trombone. Yet his music has been hardly retrogressive. “When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!” he animatedly quipped at one point. And over the course of nearly three quarters of a century, his music grew considerably more complex, often veering toward atonality. He even briefly flirted with serialism in his 1960 solo piano composition Spatials. “I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict,” he opined. “[O]ne can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.”

If there’s any quality that distinguishes all of Walker’s music it’s its conciseness and preciseness. Maybe that’s why he has now composed five relatively brief works he has titled sinfonias and has eschewed the composition of large-scale symphonies. “Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament,” he acknowledged. “The sinfonias are all extremely concise works.… [T]he idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.”

There was a somewhat uncharacteristic touch of disappointment in Walker’s voice as he said this—Walker is always extremely poised and disciplined. His aesthetics remained seemingly impervious to passing trends. But he’s now 95 and has still not been able to secure a date for the premiere performance of Sinfonia No. 5. However, never one to wait for others to make things happen, Walker hired an orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, and a conductor, Ian Hobson—who together have now recorded virtually all of Walker’s orchestral compositions for Albany Records—to make a studio recording of his new work so at least he can hear it. He’s hoping to release it within the year so others can listen to it as well. He played us the first proof following our lengthy discussion through a high-end audio system that takes pride of place in his living room. It is visceral music, totally appropriate given the subject matter to which he was responding. But there are also moments of tenderness and beauty. It is music that offers hope, which is extremely cathartic, even though, for Walker, beauty might be a by-product but it is not an explicit goal.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” Walker pointed out. “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine. But they’re missing so much. I want to create elegant structures.”

George Walker in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Walker’s home in Montclair, New Jersey
August 18, 2017—11:30 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan

Photography by Molly Sheridan and Frank Schramm (where noted)
Plus historic photos, courtesy of George Walker, which also appear in George Walker’s autobiography
George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu


Frank J. Oteri:  In an interview with Thomas May that was published in Strings magazine at the end of June, you mentioned that you began composing just to release energy after long hours of practicing the piano.  It’s pretty amazing to me that some of the first fruits of that part-time release of energy were your gorgeous Prelude and Caprice for piano.  But it’s more amazing to me that you almost didn’t become a composer.  We’re very lucky that you did.

George Walker:  Yes, it’s rather astonishing. One of my reasons for being in college was to have the opportunity of playing on the tennis team, which I had done and given up; I played freshman tennis.  In my autobiography I mentioned that I met another freshman in my first year at the Oberlin Conservatory; his name was Bob Crane.  I asked Bob, “What’s your major?”  And he said composition.

George Walker's photo and a quote about him that appeared in the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

From the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.  My limited background had been associating with persons who were interested in learning how to play the piano. And in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I had two close friends who studied the violin. But not composition.  So then I asked him, “What are you writing?”  And he said a fandango.  I’d never heard of a fandango before.  I had a strong background with French and Latin, so I knew it wasn’t French and I knew it wasn’t Latin.  It sounded Spanish.

“I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.”

Then in my junior year at Oberlin, I had been fortunate in obtaining the very first job I ever had in my life.  I had become the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary.  When I came to Oberlin, I had not ever played the organ. My first organ teacher was Arthur Crowley. He sensed that I could be an organist and I played in an organ recital in my very first year. Then I studied with Arthur Poister, who had played from memory all the works of Bach. So I got to know many of the great Bach works; I had a great respect for Bach. And I played a work of Leo Sowerby from memory on a month’s notice, the Passacaglia from his symphony.  As the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary, I had access to the organ at any time of the day, particularly at night.  I would go almost every night and improvise on the organ, like Bach.  I had a morning service five days a week in which I would play hymns.  And at the end of each service, I would improvise something.

FJO: Did you write any of those down?

GW:  I never wrote down anything.  The improvisation was my earliest attempt at exploring harmonic developments that were unusual to conclude.  In my music, I think in almost every piece, there’s a different type of cadence.  So there’s a carryover from that.

FJO:  Another thing you said in that interview with Thomas May was that you thought that studying composition would make you a better pianist.  But I think, in fact, what happened was that playing the piano and also playing the organ early on made you a better composer.  It made you write idiomatically for instruments and to be sensitive, and, because the organ literature is so filled with counterpoint, it inspired you to create music that is filled with inner voices.

GW: But then I decided that I was going to discontinue my organ studies because I had been chosen to play Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra, and I wanted to concentrate on my senior recital.  So in making the decision to discontinue with the organ, I thought I’d try one semester of composition to see what it’s like.  So the very first semester of my senior year, I took composition with Normand Lockwood, who was the composition teacher there. In that one semester I was introduced to some songs of Charles Ives and, not to Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky, but to his Symphony of Psalms.  The semester was spent essentially going from writing a single vocal line to writing a line with accompaniment, then finding a text and setting that text.  The song that I set to the text of Paul Lawrence Dunbar [“Response”] emanates from that.

FJO:  It’s that early?

GW:  That early.

FJO:  It’s a beautiful song.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

GW:  Shortly after that, after I discontinued my lessons, I wrote the Caprice. The Prelude and Caprice are linked together, but the Prelude was written for my New York debut; the Caprice was the first work I ever wrote for piano. Then when I went to Curtis, I wanted to be able to spend five hours a day practicing the piano. At Oberlin, I was involved in so many more things, just even going from building to building and looking for a piano to practice on. But the classes at Curtis were less significant in terms of what one was expected to do for them and in them. I had a lesson a week with [Rudolf] Serkin, then I’d go back home and practice. I found myself walking almost a mile to the library to listen to recordings at night, but still I had a lot of energy.  Then one day I encountered one of the students at Curtis and in the conversation I found out that he was studying composition with Rosario Scalero.  I asked him what he was writing, and he said he was doing counterpoint.  I had had four years of counterpoint at Oberlin along with fugue and canon, so I thought, “Well, if that’s all he’s doing, I can do that!”  I spoke to [the registrar] Jane Hill, who scheduled everything, and I asked her if it would be possible for me to submit something to Scalero to be considered to be a student of his, even though he’d already selected his students for that year.  And she said she would be willing to do it.  So the two pieces that I submitted were “Response” and the Caprice.

The program for George Walker's debut piano recital at New York's Town Hall: J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from WTC Bk II; Beethoven's Sonata opus 101; Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana; (intermission); three pieces by Walker (receiving their world premiere performances); Chopin's Barcarolle plus four etudes (C-sharp minor, G-flat major, G-flat minor, and B minorf); and Prokofieff's Toccata, opus 11.

The program for George Walker’s debut piano recital at New York’s Town Hall on November 13, 1945 included the world premiere performances of three short original compositions by Walker.

FJO:  To go back even earlier than when you were at Oberlin, to be so immersed in the sound world of classical music growing up in D.C. was very unusual.  Although recordings were starting to become available of some of the standard repertoire, they still weren’t very common.  So I’m curious about how you came to know and love this music. I know there was a piano in your home growing up.

GW:  Music came into my life from what my mother had. The books that she had acquired and I assume that she must have bought when she was in high school or after she was in high school.  She bought the piano that I first started to bang on. My first teacher, when I started out, had me playing things out of [John] Thompson, but there was a certain curiosity I suppose for me when I learned that I could read music.  When I found that I could do that, I started to explore and I went through everything that mother had acquired. I would ask her when she would go downtown to do shopping to look for certain things, and she would go to the music store and bring them back.

FJO:  So maybe you’d play one piece by a composer and then you would want to play the others.  When did you start making those associations?

GW:  For some reason, I think I had a sort of innate taste for what I liked, and I chose what I liked.  Schirmer Music, for example, used to have several excerpts of works printed on the back of sheet music that you would buy. I would play through those and I’d say to myself, “I like this.” I think I developed a sense of discrimination quite early about what I liked and what I didn’t think was worth anything.

FJO:  What would be an example of that?

GW:  Well, when I started with my second piano teacher, I was introduced to a lot of what was considered contemporary music like Cyril Scott, [Selim] Palmgren, [Edvard] Grieg, and [Erno] Dohnányi. Cyril Scott with those luscious chords was too luscious for me.

FJO:  Why were they too luscious?

GW:  I don’t know whether there’s something innate that relates to my father, who was very direct, almost taciturn, very precise. But things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.

FJO:  Interesting.  It’s also interesting that your parents were always fine about you becoming a musician. They were both completely supportive.

“Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.”

GW:  They never said anything to the contrary.

FJO:  And your father was a doctor.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  He didn’t want you to become a doctor?

GW:  My father never broached the idea of my taking over his office, which was downstairs, or even taking courses that would lead to a medical degree.  I knew his friends.  I was very fond of his friends— physicians, dentists, West Indians.  There was something so remarkable about my father.

FJO:  You were also very close to your grandmother.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  Her death prompted you to write the work that became your first huge success as a composer, the gorgeous Lyric for Strings, which is a string orchestra arrangement of one of the movements from your first string quartet.  I’m curious how that piece came about.

GW:  I had been fortunate in being given a Town Hall recital by Efrem Zimbalist. After that recital, which was very successful, I played the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that was very successful.  I had graduated from Curtis, and since I was living in Philadelphia, I asked at Curtis if I could continue to study with Rosario Scalero.  I still had the use of my piano, which was loaned from Curtis, but I didn’t want to study with Serkin; I didn’t want to study the piano. I had obtained the diploma in piano and composition, so this was a rather unusual request, but they were so nice.  When they agreed to the idea, I had already decided that I would like to write a string quartet.  This came about, I think, in part because the summer after my first year at Curtis, my mother insisted that although I was at Curtis, and although it’s a very prestigious institution, I should have a master’s degree, which I would not be getting from Curtis.  So I went [back] to Oberlin in the summer to begin work on a master’s degree, and I met a person with whom I was supposed to be studying composition, Ludwig Lenel.  He was actually the godson of the great German organist and musicologist Albert Schweitzer. I had been introduced to Lenel by my teacher Arthur Poister when he first came over from Germany because Poister wanted me to show Lenel how the organ in our chapel worked.  He was a composer of sorts, so I was going to take composition along with piano towards a master’s degree. It was not a very happy choice.  But in talking with him about composition, he brought up the Ravel String Quartet. I knew the Debussy String Quartet.  I listened to the Ravel and I never heard the use of so many things in that work before.  It fascinated me.  I didn’t want to write like Ravel and I didn’t want to write like Debussy, but the medium [then] fascinated me more so than writing any other work. My graduation piece for my diploma in composition was a violin sonata.

FJO:  That’s a work you no longer acknowledge.

GW:  That’s correct. I thought there was a little taste of Brahms in there, which I didn’t want to expose.

George Walker's grand piano.

A score for a later Sonata for Violin and Piano, which George Walker still acknowledges, sits on his piano.

FJO:  Did you destroy the piece, or did you save it?

GW:  I never saved it.  It was performed, and it was reviewed very well.  Scalero liked it.  Scalero suggested I send it to the Bearns Prize at Columbia University; he liked it that much.  It was the only time anybody at Curtis had ever suggested that I submit anything for an award.  But I didn’t feel that it had enough of an individualist quality to it, so I didn’t keep it.  I didn’t know what I could do after that, so I concentrated on the string quartet.

FJO:  And as you were writing it, your grandmother with whom you were very close, died.

GW:  When she passed, it was like a realization that our family was crumbling. She and my mother were like sisters. Without my grandmother, my mother had no one to talk to.  My father was not a very talkative person, and he was in and out of the house.  He had patients.  He was downstairs in the basement, or he was out doing this or that. My grandmother lived in our house.  She was in her late ’80s or early ‘90s. When we were going off to school in the morning at eight o’clock, she was downstairs sitting down and having breakfast with us every morning. And every morning, she was in the kitchen helping my mother peel potatoes or apples. Many times she was washing dishes, and I was wiping dishes for her.  Yet she never went out of the house. For someone to have endured what she had to have endured, not to have even talked about it, and yet, when I would say Toscanini is on in ten minutes, she and my mother would come into the library and listen.

FJO:  So it’s so fitting that you memorialized her by taking a movement from your string quartet and arranging it for string orchestra and that it actually received its premiere on the radio.  She would have loved the music that you wrote.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But how did it wind up getting premiered on the radio?

GW:  I was in the so-called Common Room at Curtis and I saw Seymour Lipkin. We were very close friends—Seymour and I began to study with Serkin at the same time.  After my audition to enter Curtis, my father had met me at Penn Station, taken a cab, and he waited for me until after the audition. I’ll never forget, it was raining just like today, and my father had his rubbers wrapped up in a newspaper, and we were about to leave. Just as we got to the door, we were called back by the registrar and asked to go upstairs.  We went upstairs and were ushered into a room, and there the secretary Mr. Mathis said, “We want to tell you that you’ve been accepted.” And in two minutes, in comes Seymour and they tell him the same thing.  He had been a student at Curtis, but it has always been a rule that when your teacher leaves for any reason at all, his students are out.  So Seymour had to audition again and Serkin had taken him.

Anyway, in the Common Room Seymour tells me, “I’m conducting these concerts on the radio with a string orchestra.”  It turned out to be some concerts sponsored by a bank.  Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor.  And I said to him, “If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?” Just like that.  I’d never spoken to anybody about that. Of course I knew Barber had done that, but I never talked about it in front of anybody else.  It was just right on the spot.  And he said yes.  So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it. It was called Lament because of my grandmother.

FJO:  What made you change the name from Lament to Lyric?

GW:  Because I knew there was a work of Howard Hanson called Lament for Beowulf  So when the conductor at the Mellon Art Gallery, Richard Bales, chose to do it on a program, I changed it to Adagio, and he played it, and it was reviewed as Adagio.  But that was too close to the Barber so I decided against retaining that title.

FJO:  But there are loads of Adagios and there are also loads of Laments. In fact, you wrote a gorgeous art song called “Lament.”

GW:  That was the title of a Countee Cullen poem I found after I moved to New Jersey. I came here in ’69.  I don’t remember how I got that volume of poems; it must have been from the ’70s, but I have it here.

Outside George Walker's house in Montclair, New Jersey.

The house in Montclair, New Jersey, where George Walker has lived since 1969 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  There’s a comment you made about writing music in your autobiography that I’d like to talk more about with you. You wrote that writing music is not so much about inspiration as it is about the force of will.

GW:  Yes, I had to make up my mind about what I wanted to do because I realized that for me, the beginning is so important. The beginning consists of finding the right notes and finding the right rhythm, then trying to determine what the character of that beginning is and how it will progress. I can’t say that I can translate anything that I see or read or hear into that without trying to script what will fit satisfactorily in a way that will give me the confidence to continue.

FJO:  You also said recently to somebody that when you compose music, that’s the time that the ideas come—the notes, the rhythms, and everything. If you’re not working on a specific piece of music, you don’t necessarily have music running through your head.

GW:  Things change.  I find right now with my obsession with the Sinfonia No. 5 that I’m constantly rethinking what I have done and trying to find alternatives that I could have chosen. It’s become almost a bit annoying that I just can’t completely put it aside.  But I think that has been an unusual type of diversion from the way I normally work. In the past, I’ve always avoided trying to keep ideas in my head.

FJO:  Just for the sheer practicality of wanting to move on to the next piece after you finish writing something?

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But what you say about force of will rather than inspiration and being able to compartmentalize when you create a musical idea is very contrary to the myth that many people believe about composing music. You must have this tune in your head that you have to get out.  And you rush home to a piece of paper or you write it in the back of a car.  For you, it’s always been much more systematic. You compose only during certain hours in the day. Maybe this came about because you began composing after hours of practice, and you had to have specific time set aside for composing.

GW:  Well, I do have ideas that come to me. Sometimes I feel lazy if I don’t find a piece of paper and a pencil and put them down, but it doesn’t mean—and I have tried this—that they turn out to be significant.  And I don’t actually work every day by any means.  Sometimes I don’t work over a period of time.  I only jot down a few notes at a time.  But what I do find is that I can come back and pick up where I left off.  There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time. I’m not at a loss when I sit down and find that after six notes, I don’t know where I am.

George Walker's hand holding a pencil and writing on a page of music notation paper.

George Walker writing music (photo by Frank Schramm).

“I can come back and pick up where I left off. There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time.”

FJO:  What’s so interesting about the whole inspiration question and the myth of inspiration is that it also ties into the belief in how something beautiful is created, as well as the whole notion of what beauty is. I think of pieces like the First String Quartet and the Lyric, but also the Cello Sonata and the Trombone Concerto. To my ears, these are all extremely beautiful pieces.  But you probably didn’t start out having a specific melody in your head for any of them.  These beautiful melodies emerged from what you were putting together when you came up with the structure for these pieces.

GW:  Yes. And, as a matter fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty.  I can understand how people may get a little annoyed about the fact that I seem to be more concerned about things like the technical aspect of composition, but I think that is what enables me to find the things that somehow manage to become a part of the fabric that people recognize. As I look back, I think about so many things in almost every work that people do not notice that are very important. For example, in the Trombone Concerto, there’s a consistent dissonance in the first moment, but people aren’t affected by that dissonance.  And when the trombone melody comes in, the melodic aspects are so unconventional; I’m using nine or ten different notes in that melody. That’s the same with the Passacaglia of my Address for orchestra. The great C minor Passacaglia for organ by Bach is so conventional in its use of tonic relationships. When you have something that’s literally modulating and comes back, to be able to do something like that is, to me, more interesting as a composer. If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.

FJO:  So listeners being able to discern this level of detail is important to you.

GW:  It is very important.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty… but if the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.”

FJO:  But a lot of people who listen to music, especially now and even among people who love this music, don’t necessarily have the training to recognize this level of detail.

GW:  That’s right.

FJO:  There are also a lot of people who don’t know about this music or don’t listen to it because they feel that they don’t have the training to appreciate it.  We’re losing a lot of potential listeners who might love your music, if only they heard it.

GW:  Yes.  I do feel that at this point it’s wonderful that people should have the opportunity to hear the music whether it’s on YouTube or the radio or whatever, just to hear it whatever way they can.  I don’t like the idea of people not paying for music, but I’m more than resigned to it at this point because it’s the only way.  I feel great satisfaction to know that it’s possible for them to hear it.

FJO:  But if they’re not noticing the details you wish they could comprehend, what can we do to have people hear it in a deeper way for you? What would be an ideal listening experience for somebody listening to your music?

GW:  I think the only ideal situation is just listening to it more than once.

FJO:  Repeated listening is very important.

GW:  Yes.

A collage of album covers featuring 20 different recordings containing George Walker's music.

Some of the CD and LP covers of recordings featuring the music of George Walker.

FJO:  You mentioned Address, which is a phenomenal orchestra piece and it was a huge success when it was finally performed, nearly a decade after it was written.  It took a long time for the whole piece to be performed.  That piece was completed around the time of your studies with Nadia Boulanger.  So many very different composers studied with Boulanger. Some of them credit her with improving their contrapuntal skills, but this was already a key feature in your music from your years of studying organ music and studying counterpoint. Others say they learned all these interesting chords, but you mentioned that you were not interested in luscious chords.  Still others claimed that she helped them to find their own voice. You already wrestled with this issue when you discarded your early violin sonata.  So what did Nadia Boulanger give to you as a teacher?

GW:  From the outset, Nadia Boulanger, in the very first lesson said, “You’re a composer.” She said, “Your music has power.”  The other composers—Carter and Piston and all of them—were green about counterpoint and doing harmony.  I didn’t have to do that.  I just brought in whatever I wanted to and showed it to her. She had nothing to say except, “Keep going.”  But it was she who arranged for me to play my First Piano Sonata in Paris. And she arranged for me to play it in Fontainebleau after she’d given me a scholarship.  She arranged to send the First Sonata to the Lili Boulanger Competition.  She paid to send it herself directly to Piston.  She wrote a letter of recommendation for a second year of study, which was turned down by the USIS.  The recommendation meant nothing to them.  She did everything she could for me.

FJO:  So, even if you already knew the direction you wanted to take as a composer, she was an important mentor for you.

GW:  Yes. She had the realization that I was capable from my first song.  I didn’t show her any big works.  She never saw my Trombone Concerto. The first things that I showed her were my songs.  I showed her “A Bereaved Maid” and she said that’s a masterpiece.  She saw the two piano sonatas.  That was enough.

A handwritten letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger.

A letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger, written on September 29, 1958.

FJO:  There was an evolution happening in your music that had already started before your studies with her; it almost seems like those studies were a detour and that your music ultimately went in a direction that had nothing to do with her.  Your music in the 1950s was getting more and more chromatic.

GW:  Well, something that was pointed out to me is the Lyric is not necessarily a simple piece.  It alternates between major and modal. In touching upon modes, it became chromatic. But the chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary to include dissonance as a part of the harmonic palette, not in dissonance that is totally disconnected from something.  One of the extraordinary things about Mozart was the way that he could move from the diatonic into the chromatic and back again.  You don’t have that in Beethoven.

“Chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary.”

FJO: There’s an anecdote you tell in your autobiography, from before you were studying with Boulanger and were pursuing a D.M.A. at the Eastman School, about buying a used LP recording of the Berg Violin Concerto. That was your introduction to 12-tone music.

GW: I had actually discovered this second hand recording of the Berg. It was not a very good recording. [Eastman’s director] Howard Hanson had an absolute disdain and dislike for 12-tone music. So at Eastman, no one was writing 12-tone music, except this one poor fellow who was dismissed.

FJO:  He was dismissed for writing 12-tone music?

GW:  Every year they would have this series of readings with Hanson. And this one student composer had a piece. Hanson had a stack of pieces and when he would finish a piece, he would put the score on the stack and turn around, call the composer, and so on.  But when he finished the piece of this student composer, he just put it on the stack and never bothered to call him over.

FJO:  So you were very brave to want to want to go in this direction as composer. [They both laugh.] So when did you first have the idea of using a tone row in your music?

GW:  In 1960.  I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict, because by that time, composers had started to realize they can’t be too strict about it and started letting in things they liked over something that really doesn’t sound so good.  So I wrote Spatials. It’s a work that is in variation form and is strict—and is short, which I thought would make it something that would enable one to understand that one can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.

“There are certain limitations to 12-tone music.”

FJO:  So that’s the only piece of yours that’s really strictly 12-tone.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But, to my ear, 12-tone techniques seem to also inform the Second String Quartet.  Is that true?

GW:  No.  The first movement of the Second String Quartet is intended to be a kind of singular, lyrical expression of each instrument, with a certain freedom so that it may sound as if it has some relationship to something you might find in Carter, but I was not thinking in terms of 12-tone.

FJO:  I was curious because it sounds—to me at least—like it had a 12-tone underpinning, but then you somehow subverted it, especially in the last movement, which is this wonderful fugue. All of a sudden these atonal lines start moving in a completely strict fugal motion, which is a tonal idea. So I imagined that you somehow created this wonderful synthesis between the 12-tone method and tonal construction, which seemed like the ultimate homage to having listened to the Berg Violin Concerto, because in that piece Berg was also attempting a reconciliation of the 12-tone system with Baroque counterpoint, as well as a very lush late-19th century Romantic sound world.

GW:  What I have done, and this is one of the aspects of form that I was alluding to, is to use a fugue where there are modulatory aspects to the subject and the answer.  I take what is a part of a sonata form and put in some new material.  So you have something that is linear and something harmonic that is not related to the fugal material, and then it comes back to the fugal material.  So there is this alternation between different formal period types.

FJO:  Despite being so interested in chromaticism, you have remained very dedicated to using the quintessential compositional structure for exploring diatonic tonality—the sonata form.  You’ve written five piano sonatas as well as two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and a viola sonata, plus concertos for trombone, violin, cello, and piano.  You’re clearly very committed to these classical 18th-century forms.

GW:  Well it’s because there’s a solidity there that one can come back to and find things, time after time, that are interesting.  One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well. One should attempt to find a way to continue with it rather than to throw everything out and say, “Let’s start over again.” With what?  It’s going back to attempting to create a wheel that already exists.  You don’t know how to put the spokes in the wheel. Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done. It’s not the end, like Scalero thinking, “Oh, we’ve come to Sibelius; that’s the end.”  That’s absolute nonsense. When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot! I don’t care.  There are wonderful things in the [Sibelius] Fourth Symphony; it happens to be my favorite, but please don’t disregard all the other works. You can’t listen to Stravinsky? You can’t listen to Gershwin?  Oh, please.

“When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!”

FJO:  Yet, one of the things I find interesting about your catalog of compositions is that you have now written five pieces that you’ve given the title Sinfonia; you seem to rather purposefully avoid using the English translation of that Italian word, symphony.

GW:  I thought by calling these works sinfonias that I would focus on the fact that these were not works in or were an extension of the romantic tradition, large-scale works. They are quite the opposite.  The sinfonias are all extremely concise works. The first one, which unfortunately has never had a professional performance after it was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, is only two movements. I cannot understand why it has not been programmed.  But the idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.

FJO:  Address, which has so rarely been performed in its entirety, even though it only lasts about 20 minutes, is longer than any of your sinfonias.

GW:  Exactly.  Right.  Address is a more conventional three-movement work.  It’s actually connected to Lilacs. The second movement of the Address is a kind of elegy that is related to Gettysburg.

FJO: I didn’t know that, although of course, I knew that Lilacs was based on Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” which was written to eulogize Abraham Lincoln shortly after his assassination toward the end of the Civil War. Frighteningly, the deep-seated animosities of that era seem very current once again these days, especially in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville. It struck me when I learned that your Sinfonia No. 5 was inspired by the horrible massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 that, sadly, it’s an extremely timely piece of music.

George Walker sitting in a chair in his living room.

George Walker at home (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  This score is just like most of my scores. I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work. It was only after I had started the work that it occurred to me that here is an opportunity to introduce something [about this]. I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston. This was a port where slaves were often brought.  I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.  I have not witnessed them, but there is this reference in the music.

“I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work.”

FJO:  It seems that one of the only ways we can overcome these horrific events is to increase people’s awareness of them, and that is something that artists—poets, novelists, filmmakers, choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers—can perhaps do in ways that can make very specific tragedies somehow more universally resonant. An effective artistic statement created in response to such a horrible event can have the power to make people think and question and hopefully not repeat these events in history.

GW:  Well, the unfortunate thing is that you have these marketing people for the orchestras who don’t understand the importance.  And you have these artistic administrators who don’t understand that this is a timely thing.  They’re only interested, of course, in filling seats and the best way to do it is to get something that has some immediate popular appeal.  They don’t want this kind of thing on their programs.  They don’t want it.  I’ve been trying to get orchestras to do it.  They won’t do it.

FJO:  I read somewhere that it’s going to be performed by the National Symphony.

GW:  In two years.  They had a chance to do it next season; they won’t do it.  I don’t have even a specific date.  They won’t do it here in New Jersey.  They won’t do it in Philadelphia.  They won’t do it in Austin.

FJO:  It should be done during Spoleto, in Charleston.

GW:  Yeah, but they don’t have an orchestra that’s good enough.  I’ve been trying for two years just to get someone to put it in a slot.  One likes to think that artists can change things. Well, come on.  We can’t change things.  Look.  I’ve been trying to change things. My piece Canvas was trying to change things, but I got one performance after the premiere of Canvas.

FJO:  And Canvas is a piece for wind band.  Wind band pieces usually get picked up by groups all over the country.

GW:  Exactly.  Yes.

FJO:  But it has not been?

GW:  It has not been.

George Walker running down a narrow hallway

George Walker has long continued along his own path and he remains determined despite whatever challenges attempt to impede him. Here he is running through a corridor at Carnegie Hall to a meeting with conductor Simon Rattle in the Maestro’s Suite in November 2015 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  At least Lilacs has now been done quite a few times.  And there are now two recordings of it.

GW:  Yes, but still, initially Lilacs was not done at all except for a performance out in California by a community orchestra.  Then, when they wanted to do one movement of Address in Atlanta, I said no, so then they decided to do Lilacs. Then there was a conductor, William Houston, who was on the faculty at William Paterson College here in New Jersey who had just been obsessed with the idea of doing Lilacs, so he did Lilacs there.  And about three months ago, it was done again in California.  There haven’t been that many performances of Lilacs at all.

FJO:  The fact that the vocal part could be sung either by a soprano or a tenor actually increases the possibilities for doing it.

GW:  Absolutely.

FJO:  And, of course the text for it is one of the great American poems and it has been set by several composers who’ve used it as a eulogy for many people besides Lincoln. When FDR died at the end of World War II, Hindemith set this poem for chorus and orchestra to memorialize him as well as all the people who died in the war. And Roger Sessions’s setting of it was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Your setting of it is much more compact than either of these and it is more intimate as well—there’s just one singer instead of a full chorus. I guess this also goes to what you were saying about wanting to be concise and precise.  You also used only four of the poem’s thirteen stanzas, so it’s much shorter than the Hindemith and Sessions settings.

“The repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.”

GW:  It had to do with the commission and the fact that it was written to honor Roland Hayes, a singer who had achieved international recognition eventually for his incorporation of spirituals in classical musical programs. So there was never any question of using a chorus. But I was extremely happy to be able to compose a work for voice and orchestra because the repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.  You have the Last Songs of Strauss and the Barber Knoxville [Summer of 1915].  I’d like it to be part of that repertoire.

Historic photo of soprano Faye Robinson, George Walker, and conductor Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the stage of Orchestra Hall in Boston in 1996.

George Walker takes a bow with soprano Faye Robinson (left), conductor Seiji Ozawa (right) and the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra following the world premiere performance of Lilacs on February 1, 1996. A mere two months later, the work was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music. [Note: According to George Walker’s autobiography, since Lilacs was commissioned to honor the celebrated black tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), it was originally supposed to be sung by tenor. But the tenor that Ozawa chose for the solo part, Vinson Cole, was unable to sing it and, with Walker’s permission, a soprano, Faye Robinson, was chosen to sing the premiere. So now the work can be performed by a soprano or tenor.]

FJO: My favorite moment in Lilacs is probably in the last movement where you have this very detailed orchestra sonority of flutes, woodblock, and pizzicato strings accompanying the line “Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird.” It’s wonderfully evocative.

GW: Yes, and that’s where the spiritual comes in.  I was very happy to be able to incorporate that.

FJO: You spoke before about people not hearing all the details in your music.  But if people would listen to your pieces many times, they’d be more able to hear some of these subtle details.  When I was listening again to your Violin Concerto earlier this week, I was suddenly riveted at the end of the second movement by one single harpsichord chord.  It’s the only time you can hear the harpsichord in the whole piece.  It’s just there as a punctuation, but it’s very effective once you know it’s there.  That’s another very precise orchestration detail.

GW:  That’s right.  And in Lilacs, there’s something that is not heard. It’s so irritating. At the very end in the score, there’s a maraca. I’ve told conductors to get them to play it louder, and the conductor will say, “Well, I hear it.”  Well, you may hear it, but I don’t hear it. And it’s not on the recording.  Somehow you have to deal with these people who don’t want to take the time to make certain things come out.  That’s very significant, the maracas at the end.

FJO:  Being so committed to this level of detail and not getting it can be very frustrating.

George Walker sitting in the audience of a concert hall with a score of one of his orchestral compositions.

George Walker, like all composers who write for the orchestra, sits in the audience during a rehearsal of his music, studying his score and patiently waiting to offer comments to the conductor (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  It’s frustrating because there’s no way even to irritate them.  It’s all over.  People like to think you’re collaborating with the conductor.  You’re not collaborating.  He’s standing up there.  And you go up and you say, “Please can you ask them to play it louder.”  “Yeah, O.K. Play it louder.”  But when I come back up and say, “I didn’t hear it.”  “Well, I heard it.”  Well, what can you do?  The session is over.  Then you have these compromises where they don’t want to hire someone to play the one chord in the harpsichord, because they have someone who’s playing the piano. But he can’t get over to the harpsichord in time.

FJO:  I guess that’s an argument for writing more chamber music because with chamber music, you can usually get what you want.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  We talked a bit about your string quartets, which are extremely detailed. I’d like to talk a bit more about your many songs for solo voice and piano, which you have written throughout your life. It’s an extremely intimate combination, but you can do so much with it. And you do.  Your text setting is very effective and you’ve set some really great poems—Emily Dickinson, a setting of a poem by Thomas Wyatt that I think is wonderfully eerie and powerful, your early Paul Laurence Dunbar setting we talked about, and—one of my favorites—that “Lament” by Countee Cullen that you said you set after getting a book of his poems in the 1970s.  So when you’re reading, does that move you to hear music in your head for certain poems?  How do you choose a text that you set to music?

GW:  It depends on the subject matter, but also upon the rhythm of the verse and the consistency of the meaning in the text.  I have a feeling for the vowels in the words and I can extend them, maybe use a melisma and somehow make that poem more enticing. It’s not just a literal repetition of the words; somehow it has an aura. It’s a combination that I feel is associated with the idea of lieder where you have equal parts.  The accompaniment is as important as the vocal line.

FJO:  Considering how sensitive your text setting is, both in all of your songs and in Lilacs, it’s a shame that you never wrote an opera.

GW:  I had an opera course with Menotti, and I was an opera coach at Eastman.  Even with my background, I don’t know that I could manage it. To a certain extent, I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people. I know what composers have had to go through with collaboration.  I have a friend who told me all the problems he has had composing an opera. And I could never really decide on the subject I wanted to choose.  I’ve turned down subjects offered to me.  So it’s not likely I’m going to tackle one.

“I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people.”

FJO:  So what are you working on now?

GW:  Nothing right now. I’m really just essentially trying to get a recording out.

FJO:  Of the Sinfonia No. 5? There’s a studio recording of it?

GW:  I have a first proof. You want to hear it?

FJO:  Yes, I’d love to listen to it when we finish talking. This is very exciting.  Even if a live performance has not been scheduled until 2018, people will still be able to hear this piece on a recording.  And it’s a piece that you just completed last year at the age of 94.  This is very rare. There have been only a handful of people who have composed music past the age of 90.  Leo Ornstein wrote two piano sonatas. The British composer Havergal Brian was writing music in his 90s. And Elliot Carter was still composing at the age of 103.  You still seem to be at the height of your powers as a composer. Your Sinfonia No. 4, which you wrote at the age of 89, is extraordinary.  I can’t say anything conclusive about the Fifth Sinfonia until after I’ve heard it, but from just peering through the score you showed me before we started this conversation, it seems like you’re still searching, you’re still wanting to grow and expand, which I think is very inspiring to all composers.

GW:  Yes, I just don’t want to repeat myself.  That has always been in the back of my mind.  Having somehow found things that I think have a certain individuality, I want to find a way to twist and turn them so that they don’t sound as if they’re something that I’ve used before.  That is an aspect of the conversation that I think all composers are faced with after a while.  People say, “If only Mozart would have lived and kept on writing.”  But his style would not have changed that much.

The high-end audio speakers in George Walker's living room.

After we finished talking, George Walker played for us a rough edit of the in-process recording of his Sinfonia No. 5. It was a visceral sonic experience.