Lyric for Strings
First performance: 1946, Philadelphia. Curtis Institute of Music Orchestra. Seymour Lipkin, conductor.
notes by Katherine Baber
George Walker’s Lyric for Strings also embraces seemingly opposite emotions, although it is less a two-sided contrast and more ambivalent. It is, perhaps, a perfect piece for this American moment. Although it was already the most frequently performed of Walker’s oeuvre, the _Lyric _took on a new significance within the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. In response to the killing of 23-year-old violinist Elijah McClain by the police in Aurora, Colorado, a series of “violin vigils” were held in his memory, and several prominently featured Walker’s piece. A memorial in Philadelphia also honored Mouhamed Cisse, a young cellist who was shot and killed in West Philadelphia. The choice makes sense, both to feature a Black composer and to select a work originally called _Lament _and dedicated to the memory of his mother, who had been enslaved.
As it unfolds in a five-minute arc, the piece takes the listener on a cathartic journey that is no less deep for its brevity. The harmony is ambiguous from the start, opening with what we might hear as a prayerful descending perfect fourth in the violins. The rest of the opening melody refuses to settle in either major or minor, playing with both light and shadow. Gently rising and falling in waves, the independent voices within the orchestra intertwine and gradually coil upwards, thickening and rising in volume. Near the top of this neoclassical arch-form, a simple descending gesture is repeated by each section, like a mantra, before the orchestral texture crests and then clears. After a few somber murmurs from the low strings, the violins lead the orchestra into a luminescent passage in the major mode, before the arc of the piece bends to a quiet, thoughtful end.
One of the composer’s sons, Gregory Walker, himself a violinist, hears the _Lyric _with respect to his grandmother: “For me, that piece represents almost a resignation, but also a hope that comes from just ageless experience looking out at the present.” Some might hear in the harmonic shifts both mourning and a call to justice. Peter Dobrin, a Philadelphia-based music critic, sums up the possibilities of the piece in this moment: “Whether listening to it through the lens of police brutality, COVID-19, a government separating children from their families, or some other horrific marker of this trying era, there might be no other piece that speaks to us as directly as this one.”
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