Had Sunday night’s musical vigil on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art happened a year or two ago, chances are the Adagio for Strings would have made an appearance. Samuel Barber’s glowing, justifiably beloved work has existed for decades as our reliable national lament.
But although notes on the page don’t change, pieces of music somehow do. A lot has happened in the last few months, a dizzying lot. COVID-19 and its awful losses have kept us inside, Black Lives Matter and the struggle for justice has sent us into the streets.
And somehow, one of the works string players chose for Sunday’s Art Museum vigil and another this past Wednesday at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia has emerged as our new soundtrack to sorrow — with a considerable asterisk of hope.
George Walker’s Lyric for Strings has hardly suffered in obscurity. It is the composer’s most frequently played work. Now, though, it has become the perfect ode to our times. Within the first 15 seconds of its performance on both nights of the vigil, it settled upon listeners — and this one in particular — as the only possible piece for the moment.
Barber's Adagio for Strings reveals its pain from the opening notes and unleashes it in waves through the excruciating climax. Walker's Lyric for Strings, though, is made of subtler stuff. It's more ambivalent. The first few notes of the main melody start out suggesting a minor key, and then the theme takes a sunnier turn. It continues to shift back and forth between the two, countervailing forces living side by side. What could be more emblematic of our times?
It is undeniably somber and it does grow intense. It lives in the half-shadow of our mourning (to borrow from Edith Wharton). But the ultimate effect is as a balm. It never loses the faith.
Walker wrote the piece, originally titled Lament, in dedication to his grandmother, who had been enslaved, said violinist Gregory Walker, one of the composer’s sons.
“For me, that piece represents almost a resignation, but also a hope that comes from just ageless experience looking out at the present,” he told me. “She was a very quiet presence in the household, and you have this sense of him processing it from the vantage point of all that she had already been through.”
Lyric for Strings was used to open the two recent Philadelphia vigils organized as a call to justice on behalf of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist and violinist whose brutalization and death at the hands of police last August in Colorado has drawn national protests. The events also honored the memory of Mouhamed Cisse, a young cellist shot and killed in West Philadelphia June 1 by unknown assailants, and both evenings also featured works like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Amazing Grace.”
Violinist Alberta Douglas, one of the organizers of the two Philadelphia vigils, has described the emotional character of Lyric for Strings like this:
“In the piece, you can hear it goes in and out of happiness as if to remember all the sweet memories of the person and the sadness and longing for the person who you can no longer walk beside.”
What would the composer think about his work being played now at these vigils?
"I think he would be so pleased," said Gregory Walker.
George Walker died in 2018 at age 96 after a long career that won him a Pulitzer Prize and many other accolades, though likely not as many had he not been Black.
Requests to perform Lyric for Strings, his most popular work, dropped off in March as the pandemic shut down concerts. But since June, there’s been an uptick in performances, his publisher says.
The six-and-one-half-minute work has often been compared to the Adagio for Strings. Both works are adapted from string quartets, both came from the pens of Curtis Institute of Music graduates, both deploy stepwise melodic building blocks. They were written within a few years of each other — the Barber in 1936, the Walker in 1946 — bookending a particularly bloody, tumultuous decade.
The Adagio for Strings ends feeling emotionally spent and a little unresolved.
Lyric for Strings leaves us with something we need right now.
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.
Philadelphia Orchestra double-bassist Joseph Conyers, who conducted All City Orchestra in Lyric for Strings during a 2015 tour of Italy, once put it like this:
“There’s an arch in the piece that begins with an optimism embodied in love and compassion. That love morphs into an acknowledgment of the struggle that such positive forces can face in the world — a world where optimism can seem in short supply. Ultimately, hope wins out, and the listener is left both content and comforted.”
No one present Sunday at the Art Museum or last week in Malcolm X Park could have doubted it.