by Sylvia Robison
Published Summer 2006
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Gwyneth Van Anden Walker
"My life goes on in endless song above earth's lamentation. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?" This nineteenth century hymn, which inspired one of Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's most moving and dramatic choral compositions, might also serve as a motto for her life and career.
The New Canaan, Connecticut native (b. 1947) describes herself as "a New England Quaker composer." She is an eleventh-generation Quaker whose grandmother was a suffragette. Her mother's family, the Van Andens, were Brooklyn newspaper publishers who helped fund the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her father, John Baldwin Walker, was an inventor and the descendent of inventor John Baldwin, founder of Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio.
Gwyneth Van Anden Walker holds BA, MM and DMA degrees in Music Composition from Brown University and the Hartt School of Music, where she worked with composition mentor Arnold Franchetti. After teaching for fourteen years at Hartt, the Hartford Conservatory and the Oberlin College Conservatory, she abandoned academia for full-time composing in Vermont. She now lives in a rented home on an 800-acre dairy farm in Braintree.
Gwyneth Walker was "smitten by music" at the age of two. "I was in my crib," she recalls, "and my older sister had started taking piano lessons. The crib was in a bedroom that was right over the living room. When my sister started playing the piano, a feeling of energy and joy shot right up through me. I leapt up in my crib. The next day, I remember crawling to the piano, climbing up, and trying to duplicate the sounds I had heard the night before."
By first grade she had taught herself how to put notes on a staff. "My first pieces had few notes," she remembers, "but my name was clearly up there! This was not a matter of my knowing that I wanted to be a composer. I already was one."
That focus and dedication, plus a gift for creative collaboration with a wide range of soloists and groups have brought her nation-wide recognition and acclaim. Walker's instrumental and choral publications include more than one hundred sixty commissioned works with great diversity in form and content. She writes for solo instruments, for chamber ensembles and for full orchestra or band. Her music is unfailingly energetic and often humorous. In Match Point for band, the avid tennis player has composed four movements for orchestra and tennis balls. The conductor is instructed to wear tennis clothes and must conduct the last two movements with a tennis racquet.
Walker is particularly adept at translating the words and sounds of poetry to music. Her catalog includes song cycles, jazz, folksongs and spirituals, and even a little rock-and-roll, a passion during her high school and college years. Her choral music incorporates a wide variety of texts ranging from the Bible and the Sarum Primer to poets E. E. Cummings, Anne Bradstreet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, W. B. Yeats, Rainier Maria Rilke, Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton and May Swenson, as well as traditional folk songs, ballads and spirituals. One current project is an as yet unnamed cantata based on Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea, combining narration and music for women's voices.
Gwyneth Walker is a composer who has a tremendous love of life and a love of writing music. "My music is me," she says. "I've been doing this all of my life. Writing music that communicates to other people is my approach. This is the gift I have of expressing myself as a human being."
It is a twenty-four hour a day job. She composes during the daytime and spends her evenings managing the business end of making music. Few composers are able to support themselves solely through their art, but Walker has successfully maintained that balance since she moved to Vermont in 1982. She is an indefatigable traveler, giving generously of her time and energy in the development and interpretation of her music and often attending premiere performances throughout the United States.
Gwyneth Walker is very, very good at what she does. In 2000, the Vermont Arts Council recognized Dr. Walker with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Her peers concur.
Musicologist Carson Cooman praised her ability to place her own stamp on traditional materials. Walker, he wrote, "very well may be the greatest living exponent of this art. Perhaps not since Aaron Copland has there been a composer who is able to combine traditional American songs and spirituals so integrally with his/her own material so as to make them be totally fresh and original-without losing any of the power and flavor of the originals."
Dr. Dawn Willis, founder and director of Bella Voce, the Women's Chorus of Vermont, recently wrote: "Gwyneth Walker's music creates vibrant tapestries of sound by weaving melodic threads into rich harmonies. Her compositions range from passionate pieces using dramatic accents and changing meters to introspective works that evoke a quiet sense of timelessness. Equally comfortable in both choral and instrumental forms, Walker's unique gift as a composer has earned her the respect of performers throughout the United States and beyond."
Asked a few years ago to summarize her musical mission, Gwyneth Walker responded, "You have an obligation to say the things that you uniquely can say. I am best qualified to speak about the kind of life I live here. I like straightforward, sincere, God-revering, beautiful, humorous kinds of music that can reach people from all walks of life."
The highest accolade comes from those who sing and play her music every day of the year.
Note: All information is taken from Gwyneth Walker's website -- gwynethwalker.com -- and from personal interviews.