From Sonata to ‘Satin Doll’: The Piano Music of George Walker

The following article by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, November/December 1997 issue.

Dr. George Walker earned widespread attention when he won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize with his composition “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra, which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, this sophisticated gentleman who recently celebrated his 75th birthday was already a musician of recognized stature. He has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Fromm Foundation, and has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, and several MacDowell Colony Fellowships and Yaddo Fellowships. He was Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University when he retired in 1992, and has served on the faculties at Smith College, the University of Colorado, and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Walker studied composition at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1941 to 1945 with Rosario Scalero, the teacher of Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti. In 1955, he entered the Eastman School of Music, graduating with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree the following year, and continued his composition studies with Nadia Boulanger in France periodically during the next several years. He has published over seventy works including pieces for chorus, brass, woodwinds, strings, voice, and organ, and his orchestral works have received performances by all of the major symphony orchestras in the United States.

Walker has made an important and rewarding contribution to the piano repertoire with his four sonatas, concerto, numerous short pieces, and music for two pianos. His works are characterized by intense expression, airtight construction, and a highly chromatic harmonic language. His rhythmic sense can seem complex, but the divisions of the beat are always very clear, making the music accessible for both listener and performer. Another Walker trademark is lean, contrapuntal textures. “I am not interested in purely vertical writing,” he told me at his Montclair, New Jersey residence. “I discovered early on that I had certain contrapuntal skills that were almost second nature to me. I try to create linear movement that has harmonic implications.”

Walker brings an informed sensibility to his keyboard works. He was a piano major and an organ minor when he graduated from Oberlin College in 1941 at the age of eighteen, and went on to become one of Rudolf Serkin’s top students at Curtis along with fellow pupils Eugene Istomin and Seymour Lipkin. In 1945, he launched a concert career with a debut recital in New York’s Town Hall and a performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. In the ensuing years, he toured Europe and the United States as a recitalist and as a concerto soloist with major symphony orchestras. He is still active in recitals and chamber music performances, and can be heard on recordings (see discography).

Although Walker is a virtuoso pianist, his writing eschews display: he composes music for the piano, not piano music. This is because Walker ascribes to an esthetic that holds musical ideas as primary. He seeks to distill a message rather than to expound upon it or upon instrumental technique. One fortunate result of this is that the level of difficulty found in most of his piano works is not formidable. The main technical challenges are found in his later works, with wide leaps that don’t fit easily under the hand, and passages of irregular intervals divided between the hands or with double notes in both hands. Nonetheless, one must be an accomplished player to perform his pieces, because they require great flexibility as well as a wide range of touches and tone qualities.

Walker delights in giving himself tough new problems to solve in each composition that he writes. He admires the inventiveness and diversity found in Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas, and similarly his intention has been to create a set of distinctive pieces that can be viewed together in a larger context, as a repertory. Thus, while a singular identity shines through his work, Walker’s output as a whole has a fascinating variety.

“Caprice” (1941)*, an early work, is gratifyingly pianistic. It has the character of a vigorous waltz, but it lives up to its title with unexpected changes of meter and a surprising arrival on the tonic which is delayed until the final measures. It is published with the “Prelude” (1945), a melodious and heartfelt piece in the key of B major.

“Piano Sonata No. 1” (1953, revised 1991) is Walker’s first major piano work. It is commanding in its scope and power, and is well worth considering by those seeking a substantial American composition for study or programming. From the opening measures onward, many features of Walker’s style are evident, including chromaticism, counterpoint, and structural clarity. The passionate first movement follows a textbook sonata-allegro form with an extended development section. The second movement is a set of variations in A major based on the gentle folk song, “O Bury Me Beneath The Willow”. The third movement, cast in an arch form, is dynamic, driven, and toccata-like. Another folk song, “Liza”, is found beginning at measure 45.

“Piano Sonata No. 2” (1956) was Walker’s doctoral dissertation at Eastman, and it is a study in brevity. In this work, Walker wanted to write a smaller amount of music in four movements than in the three movements of the first sonata, but without a reduction in substance or quality. The theme of the first movement variations is only four measures long and the bass line mirrors the treble — another example of imitative counterpoint. The presto and adagio movements are also compressed, and the last movement is in a sonatina form with a brief coda. The textures are sparse throughout, usually two or three voices, except in the chordal third movement. Because of this, the second sonata is easier to play than the first. The “Sonata for Two Pianos” (1956) is an arrangement of the same music.

“Spatials” (1961), is another set of variations. “The variation form has always fascinated me,” Walker says, “because it provides a challenge to move away from the basic concept — established in the 18th and 19th centuries, not of embellishing a melody, like most people think, but of following the function of the bass line — to the point where each variation is a separate entity. The title is not an extra-musical reference to space. It is about the spacing, the disposition, of the chords and sounds.” The spaces are of two types: time durations, including the rests that create space around the notes, and distances between notes, including large intervals and register shifts. “Spatials” is Walker’s only strict twelve-tone composition for piano, and it demonstrates how a musically eloquent work can be wrought from this disciplined idiom.

In “Spektra” (1971), Walker establishes a freely atonal approach to harmonic language that continues through the rest of his pianistic output. In addition to the lack of any key signature, there is also no time signature, and the measures are of differing lengths. However, the barlines only serve as a visual and structural guide without indicating the traditional stress on the downbeat. “Spektra” grows from long-breathed phrases that settle into satisfying cadences and then move on again. Walker says that “I wrote ‘Spektra’ with the idea of creating a scintillating quality which would suggest flashes of light and color. There is also the idea of impulse, of unpredictability, and changing constantly the register of the instrument.” The color also comes from closely-juxtaposed contrasts in dynamics and a judicious use of the damper pedal. A unifying repeated-note motif appears from time to time like a beacon.

Virtuosi will feel at home with the abundant octave passages in “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” (1974). The first movement revisits sonata-allegro form, but with a brilliant touch: the second theme recapitulation appears in the final cadenza. Walker bases his thematic material on intervals of major and minor seconds, creating a restless quality that never seems to find resolution, and there are many meter and tempo changes as well. The second movement holds a surprise key signature of three flats, in which nestles a quote from Duke Ellington’s song, “Solitude.” However, the tune is disguised through augmentation, register displacements, and instrumental distribution. It is Walker’s musical homage to his and Ellington’s birthplace, Washington, D.C. The third movement is a fugue, and Walker renews the form by introducing new material in the episodes before the restatements of the subject. It is even more tempestuous than the first movement, with wild traversals of extreme ranges of the keyboard packed into one or two measures, and martellato passages with alternating hands.

he composes music for the piano, not piano music.

The three movements of “Piano Sonata No. 3 ” (1975, revised 1996) each bear titles. “Fantoms”, although uncompromisingly dissonant, is reminiscent of “Spektra” in temperament, with an ebb and flow of events that seem improvisatory yet coherent. “Bell” is one of Walker’s most imposing musical ideas: a single chord, played 17 times. Walker did not, however, have minimalism in mind when he wrote this movement; he was capturing the sound he heard from a church bell in Italy. It is a prelude to the following movement, “Choral and Fughetta”, in which the Choral is a legato cantus firmus harmonized with staccato chords. The Fughetta does not actually have a fugue subject, and Walker says that “the word ‘fughetta’ essentially suggests the imitation that would be associated with the exposition of a fugue, but no more than that.” With the conciseness and variety of its ideas, the third sonata makes a striking impression.

“Bauble” (1979) was written as a contest piece for the Maryland International Piano Competition to serve the purpose of providing a contemporary work for the contestants. “‘Bauble’ was not intended to be a highly involved musical projection,” says Walker, with a touch of dry humor. It is built from a series of contrasting ideas: a slow introduction is followed by erupting passagework, then a cantabile middle section leads into patterns of alternating hands and wide arpeggiations, with a ferocious finale that builds to a tripleforte cadence. In its brief duration it surveys an enormous range of moods and textures.

“Piano Sonata No. 4” (1984) breaks new ground structurally for Walker: it is cast in two movements which bear a strong likeness to each other, even in the use of slow introductions and a recurring repeated-note motif. Walker says that he set himself the problem of “how to give two movements a sense of unity instead of three or four movements. There had to be a balance between continuity and variety.” Numerous tempo changes lend an improvisatory quality, as do sudden changes of dynamics. The second half of the second movement is a relentless stream of sixteenth notes, broken only by the appearance at measure 66 of the folk song “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”, marked “lamentoso”.

“Music For Two Pianos” (1985) demonstrates a more advanced treatment of this idiom than the two-piano sonata by utilizing a wider assortment of articulations, textures, and dynamics. It also contains sharper dissonances, broader keyboard ranges, and more daring interplay between the instruments both rhythmically and sonically. It is a one-movement work with several sections offset by tempo changes, and it is a stirring and effective piece.

The title of “Guido’s Hand” (1987), a suite in 5 movements, honors the memory of Guido d’Arezzo, developer of a system of solfege. Since each movement is short and defined, the piece as a whole is very friendly to both the performer and the listener. With this piece Walker wanted to take the unprecedented step of writing a unified suite, unlike the Bach Suites or Debussy’s ‘Pour le Piano’. “Guido’s Hand” is also cyclic, with material from the first movement appearing at the end of the fifth. Of special note is the fourth movement, where another Ellington quote is hidden: “Satin Doll” in its entirety commences at measure 5, but it is camouflaged by rhythmic alterations and radical reharmonization, while thirty-second note runs traversing the keyboard evoke figuration typical of jazz pianist Art Tatum. Walker says that he “wanted to use the best of jazz, which is the elaboration of a tune. But you have to have a good melody to which to relate the embellishments. That creates the sense of structure.” The last movement has the nature of a waltz, which cycles back to the waltz-like “Caprice” where we began our investigation of this repertoire.

Walker’s music has originality without artificiality. It is born of his imagination and his search for precise expression, as well as his tremendously high standards. He is disappointed in much of the contemporary music that is coming out today. “I do not believe a composition can be significant without having what we all have recognized over the years as the basic elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony in their proportion. And the merit, the distinctive characteristic, of any work really depends upon the harmonic idiom. You have composers who don’t have a sense of what it means to create a harmonic idiom. Working with contemporary music is more difficult because you’re not using common practice vocabulary. You’re aware of what contemporary vocabulary consists of, but you must find how to use it in a way that will allow you to create something that is structurally viable. And for me, structure is composition.”
The “Prelude” and “Caprice” are erroneously dated as 1940 and 1945 respectively in the NSM edition.

  • “George Walker In Recital”, Albany TROY 117. Works of Scarlatti, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, and Walker (Sonata No. 1)
  • “Music of Walker”, Albany TROY 136. “Fancies” for clarinet and piano 4 hands; “Antifonys” for orchestra; “An Eastman Overture” for orchestra; “Variations For Orchestra; “Cantata” for soprano, tenor soli, boys choir, and orchestra; “Three Pieces For Organ”
  • Albany TROY 154. “Poem” for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble; “Music For Brass (Sacred And Profane)”; “Piano Sonata No. 2”; “Violin Sonata No. I”; “Cello Sonata” (George Walker, pianist, on the last 3 selections)
  • “Piano Sonata No. I”, CRI CD629. Natalie Hinderas, pianist
  • “Piano Sonata No. 2”, CRI 270 (vinyl). George Walker, pianist
  • “Piano Sonata No. 4”, GM Recordings 2016CD. Frederick Moyer, pianist
  • “Poem” for soprano and chamber ensemble, Centaur CRC2071
  • “Antifonys” and “Variations For Orchestra”, Mastersound DFCDI-015
  • “Trombone Concerto”, BIS CD628