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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GW: They never said anything to the contrary.
FJO: And your father was a doctor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FJO: So that’s the only piece of yours that’s really strictly 12-tone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.