This is the third volume in the Catalyst Quartet’s wonderful and insightful survey of neglected works by black composers. The first focused on music by the black English composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1875-1912), the second on music of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century American composer Florence Price (1887-1953). The present disc focuses on the works of three men whose musical careers were entirely in the twentieth century: William Grant Still (1895-1978), George Walker (1922-2018), and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).
William Grant Still is roughly contemporary with Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland has often been called the “Dean of American Composers” and Still has been called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. Such honorifics, while well intended, do nothing to describe the true depth and significance of either of these composers.
Similarly their best known works, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944), and Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” (1930) are fine pieces of music but cannot represent the whole of their respective authors’ outputs. Both produced quite a bit of music and went through stylistic changes as their artistic sensibilities evolved. Copland’s oeuvre is pretty well documented, allowing listeners to grasp its entirety while Still’s work has not enjoyed the same distinction. That is changing, slowly, and that is reason to celebrate.
Still is represented here by his “Lyric Quartette” (published in 1960 but likely written 1939-1945). These three movements for string quartet are intended to represent a plantation, the mountains of Peru, and a pioneer settlement, respectively. This appears to be the first commercial recording of the work, a set of vignettes (Still never wrote a string quartet as such) seemingly published as an afterthought after looking back over his files. That’s not to denigrate the music. It is finely crafted and reflects a composer closer to the folk eclecticism of his contemporaries William L. Dawson (1899-1980) whose use of folk idioms resembles that of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), two white contemporaries (rather than his later more post romantic style). These composers’ use of folk idioms and the comforting tonal harmonies, very much in vogue when the music was first written, sound rather old fashioned in their year of the Lyric Quartette’s publication. Nonetheless, it is a vital work in understanding Still and his development as a composer. This would make for a great encore or second selection following a Haydn or Mozart Quartet.
George Walker was a sought after concert pianist and he forever holds the distinction of being the first Black American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music (for his 1996 “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra). I learned from one of my personal favorite Chicago broadcasters that he, Bruce Duffie (WNIB host 1975-2001) played Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” (1946, orch. 1990) as the final sign off music at the closing of the beloved independent station (reportedly very satisfying to that terminal audience). The link provided is to a transcript of his subsequent conversation he had with Walker in 2001, worth your time to read.
So what does all this have to do with this release? Well, that, “Lyric for strings” is actually Walker’s orchestration for string orchestra of the second movement, “molto adagio“ of his three movement String Quartet No.1 (1946) “Lyric”. Samuel Barber garnered a great audience with his “Adagio for Strings” from the molto adagio of his String Quartet (1935-36).
The outer movements (1 and 3) of Walker’s quartet (carefully conceived and thoughtfully developed at length) frame the beautiful adagio with a passionate elaborately developed allegro and a high energy, virtuosic finale (much as in the Barber work). The quartet’s title, derived from the slow movement which was originally titled “lament” is dedicated to Walker’s grandmother, a former slave. A very different perspective of America, for sure, but a truly spectacular example of string quartet writing.
I wrote my review in chronological order to clarify my narrative but the actual track order is:
String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004)
- Allegro vivace
Lyric Quartet William Grant Still (1895-1978)
- The Sentimental One
- The Quiet One
- The Jovial One
String Quartet No. 1 “Lyric” George Walker (1922-2018)
- Molto adagio
- Allegro con fuoco
So String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” (1956) by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson is leaving the most recent for last. This work, shares with the other two it’s having been written fairly early in the composer’s career (he was about 24 when he wrote this piece, Still was in his 40s and Walker about 24 when they wrote their respective quartets). So Catalyst adheres to these important but early utterances from these three important artists. And for clarity the name permutations we encounter here comprise: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is the English poet, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is the black English composer honorifically named after that poet, and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) the black American composer honorifically named in honor of said English composer.
This is another outstanding but neglected American composer who happens to be black. This fine string quartet is defined by its serious tone and elaborate development in a passionate romantic tonal idiom. Of course the composer shares his prominent jazz (Perkins was nothing if not eclectic) influences in rhythms and harmonic structure. Based loosely on the hymn, “Calvary” from which it takes its name, it was actually premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of a memorial for composer and baritone Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). The opening allegro is a searching and unsettling matter followed by a calming slow movement characterized by an incessant pizzicato repeating figure. The finale, a touch more hopeful sounds almost improvisatory at times much in the manner of some jazz forms. Truly another outstanding example of good string quartet writing. This is powerful music!
These recordings are both beautifully done and, arguably, definitive in their interpretation of these delightful and essential additions to the quartet literature. The Catalyst does a fine and honorable job in their ongoing mission to reclaim forgotten gems such as these for present and future listeners. Thank you for that. Please keep working on this body of work lest it be lost to history.