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.
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.
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.