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ClassicsOnline Home » WALKER, G.: Chamber Music and Songs - String Quartet No. 2 / Poem / Modus (Stasio, Green, Martin, Son Sonora String Quartet, G. Walker)
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker enjoys exploring the possibilities offered by different combinations of voice types and instrumental sonorities. His songs belong among the finest of any contemporary composer, Lyric for Strings is one of the most frequently performed works by an American composer, and Poem was declared a masterpiece after its première in 1987. Encouraged by Nadia Boulanger, Walker has assimilated serialism, neo-classicism and African-American music into a personal style, gaining him recognition as a true elder statesman of contemporary classical music.
By William Kreindler
George Walker (b. 1922)
Chamber Music and Songs
The New York première of my String Quartet No. 2 in September of 1968 received a glowing review in The New York Times after a performance in Town Hall by the New England Festival String Quartet. A revised version was performed several times by the Son Sonora String Quartet in various cities before this recording was made.
In the first movement, after a brief introduction, an intense, soloistic quality characterizes the instrumental entrances that taper off in unusual cadences. The second movement has scherzo-like material riveted with syncopations. A middle section provides contrast before the return of the initial motive.The third movement contains an abundance of pizzicati, punctuating sustained melodic fragments. The dramatic opening of the fourth movement is followed by a four voice, highly chromatic fugue. A cantabile section recurs before the final fugal entrances lead to the conclusion of the string quartet.
The Poem for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble was completed in fulfillment of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The première by the Capitol Chamber Artists in Albany, NY occurred in February 1987. B.A. Nilsson, writing in the Schenectady Gazette, pronounced it “a masterpiece”. It is scored for flute, clarinet in B flat, violin, viola, cello, harp or guitar, harpsichord, piano, and two percussionists. In addition to the solo soprano part, a narrator, a bass voice and a light soprano are used. In this recording the narrated preface is not included.
There are three divisions of the musical setting of The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot that encompass the five sections of the text. A brief percussion cadenza using xylophone, tom-toms, vibraphone, snare drum and maracas is introduced in the third section of the text. A fragment of the hymn, At the River, by the Rev. Robert Lowery, is quoted in the fourth section. A transformation by diminution of the instrumental material that appears at the beginning of the work is introduced in the middle of the fifth section. The work closes as the bass intones, “A penny for the Old Guy”.
The Lyric for Strings, one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by an American composer, is heard on this disc in its original version for a string quartet. The entrance of the viola in the introduction presents in augmentation the cantabile statement in eighth notes by the first violin, imitated by succeeding entrances of the other instruments, that defines the character of the work. The cadential harmonies of the intervening section reappear after the principal climax and at the end of the work.
Five Fancies was commissioned by the David Ensemble formed by Warren Wilson, a pianist and conductor. It is freely constructed as a set of five variations derived from five notes played by the clarinet in its first entrance. The fourth variation is dodecaphonic. Five Fancies may be the only work composed for the combination of clarinet and piano four hands.
The Cygnus Ensemble, directed by William Anderson, commissioned Modus for Chamber Ensemble. Four sections are permeated with highly charged repeated notes that add rhythmic excitement to an unusual combination of flute, oboe and English horn, violin and cello with two guitars. The fourth section concludes with a tremolando on the mandolin.
The songs are considered to be among the finest by any contemporary composer. They represent an adherence to the Lieder tradition in creating lyrical vocal lines supported by accompaniments that are crafted individually for each text. I Never Saw A Moor is one of several settings of poems by Emily Dickinson that have a particular distinction. Response, the earliest of the songs included here was composed in 1941 when the composer was eighteen. The poem was written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the first black American poet to attain national recognition. The humorous text of Mother Goose (Circa 2054) ends with controlled Sprechstimme.
The Two Songs for Baritone and Piano are among several vocal settings by George Walker that use old English Texts. Take, O Take Those Lips Away, a poem by Shakespeare, begins forcefully after the introduction by the piano. An earlier version was composed for chorus, SATB. The poem And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus by Sir Thomas Wyatt, contains plaintive repetitions that are treated differently with each appearance. The final words of the text, “Say Nay,” are emphatic in their insistence.
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