When John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, the United States (or at least the northern faction of it) was thrown into a period of profound national mourning. One result of this outpouring of grief was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain", but the poet also wrote a much longer pastoral elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", a free-form poem that draws its imagery from drooping stars and keening birds. More than a century later, this poem would become the basis for George Walker's Lilacs, the first piece by a black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
As a composer, Walker has had an astonishing career. Born in Washington DC on June 27, 1922, he began studying piano at the age of five, and was giving public recitals by the age of 14. He graduated at the top of his class from the Oberlin Conservatory when he was only 18 years old, and went on to become the first black graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he earned degrees in both piano performance and music composition. Within months of graduation, he became the first black instrumentalist to appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he played Sergei Rachmaninov's third piano concerto under Eugene Ormandy. He went on to earn doctoral degrees in composition and piano performance from Eastman in 1955 (the first African-American student to do so), and subsequently spent two years studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. On his return to the United States, he began teaching in earnest in addition to his compositional activities, holding faculty positions everywhere from Smith to Rutgers. Since that time, he has won numerous awards, plaudits, and honorary degrees, and his works have been performed by almost every major orchestra in the United States as well as by several in Europe. He currently lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Lilacs was written in 1996 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Obviously not responding to a major national tragedy, Walker jettisons much of Whitman's text, leaving us with a restrained, intimate setting that expresses a profound, ravaged, individualized grief instead of a stylized monument to collective mourning. A subdued horn call ushers in the first movement, leading to a harmonic world that at first might seem more lush than grieving. But with the entrance of the soprano, this decays into a delirious slalom, a fragmented world that can't seem to find its footing. By the time the glockenspiel punctuates the drooping star in the night, things have become positively frigid. At last the music coalesces into an island of plainspoken tragedy, as tho all that had gone before was a denial, an inability or unwillingness to feel the sorrow at hand.
Keeping, perhaps, with a narrative of coming to terms with loss, the second movement begins with snarling brass, and continues in a mood of simmering rage, occasionally spilling over into violent outbursts. After the last of these subsides, tender, tentative woodwind solos take the stage, searching for a lost intimacy. Wrapped in layers of gentle memory, the music blossoms into a hazy warmth, but it can't sustain the illusion; skittish celli and pungent brass interjections unsettle the mood.
Effervescent twitterings open the finale, aping the songs of marshy birds. The music is mercurial, shifting between moods and tempos with easy fluidity. There is something of a climax near the movement's midpoint, but it does not succeed in bringing peace. Instead, we are returned to the languid fragments of the opening. A few reach out to one another, trying — and almost succeeding — to connect. There is a sigh, a rattle, and then silence.