George Walker

Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra

    Commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the achievements of the renowned black tenor, Ronald Hayes, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra received its premiere in Orchestra Hall, Boston with Seiji Ozawa conducting and Faye Robinson as the soprano soloist on February 1, 1996. The work is in four sections utilizing the first three stanzas and the thirteenth stanza from Walt Whitman's poem, When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd, a poignant reflection on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

    In the verses of these four stanzas, the principle symbols-the lilac, the star and the bird appear in the text. The first section begins with an orchestral introduction. The horn introduces the interval of half step that recurs consistently and is often followed by a decorative flourish that has floral implications. The latter half of this section contains melismatic (embellishing) intonations on several words.

    The second section focuses on the second symbol in the poem - the star. The introductory material in utilized as accompaniment in the course of this section. The reference to the lilac reappears in the third stanza with recurrences of decorative figurations. The third symbol in the Whitman poem, a bird, is suggested in the beginning of the fourth section. The verse, "Sing-on, sing-on, you gray-brown bird" is is set to the opening phrase of the spiritual, "Lit'l boy, how old are you", made famous by Ronald Hayes. Transformations and restatements of motives associated with their literary counterparts recreate the redolence of the penultimate verse of Whitman's elegy. "Lilac and star and bird twined with a chant, my soul".

Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1996.