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Modern Romantic

Richmond composer Walter Braxton deals with life in the forms of musical notation.


  • Scott Elmquist

One of Richmond’s most prolific composers writes music nobody hears.

An opera in five acts, two string quartets, five symphonies, 12 chamber pieces, 15 preludes for the piano. All composed painstakingly by hand, with pen and ruler on staff paper.

But there’s no money for players to bring the notes to life. No symphony at his disposal. No equipment to create sample orchestrations. Yet Walter Augustus Braxton presses on. He roams the halls of the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University and visits churches looking for musicians. He talks for hours by phone to find performers.

And while he keeps composing the former child sensation has personal demons to tackle, including a schizo-effective disorder that requires constant medication and keeps him home in an assisted living facility. “This diagnosis has imprisoned me,” Braxton says.

“There has been so much music in my lifetime,” he says. “But how am I supposed to know where I’m going from here?”

Walter Braxton was born to Howard and Gladys Braxton on April 29, 1952, on Fifth Street in Navy Hill, an eclectic old Richmond neighborhood that was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Interstate 95. His father became one of Richmond’s first black policemen in 1946. Despite his superiors telling him he’d never advance beyond patrolman because of the color of his skin, his accomplishment lives on, commemorated with a historical marker in Abner Clay Park at Brook Road and Leigh Street.

Braxton’s interest in music came early on. As a boy soprano, his first live performance was at 5, singing a version of “Silent Night” with his teacher at the piano. “I was a true soprano, not a falsetto,” he says, “and she was amazed at my beautiful natural soprano voice.” In the sixth grade he wrote the Mary Scott Elementary School’s alma mater, which was his first piece of published music.

In 1963, his family moved to Ladies Mile Road, where he attended Chandler Junior High School on Brookland Park Boulevard. Two years later he began integrating with white pupils. Administrators started by selecting A students first, he recalls, “but when my generation came along they took the whole group without bias or discrimination.”

Into the 1960s it became apparent that young Braxton had special gifts. At Chandler he sang “The Lord’s Prayer” by Albert Hay Malotte in A-flat major, not the more standard E-flat or C, and apparently it was a major success. “Paul Cartwright, the commandant of the marching band from John Marshall, came over just to hear me sing,” he recalls with pride.

Rex Britton, who was orchestra director at Chandler, taught Walter in the seventh and eighth grades. “He was very quick, very musical, but he was a little mischievous, and needed to be focused,” Britton says. “Sometimes I had to keep him after school. One day just to occupy him I had him play the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the flute. He did it perfectly. Then I told him to play it backwards, which he did, but with some difficulty.”

In a 10th-grade talent show, Braxton sang “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert to such acclaim that everyone assumed he would head to Richmond Professional Institute, the forerunner of VCU, to study voice. But he already was taking flute lessons at the school with Britton’s wife, Judith Eastman Britton.

At 15, Braxton won a 10-day, full scholarship as the associate principal flute player in a National Youth Orchestra program called American Youth Performs at Constitution Hall in Washington. The group also played Carnegie Hall in May 1968 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. As a result of his affiliation with the orchestra, Braxton won a scholarship to the Northern Virginia music center at Reston that summer. The center was a collaboration of Robert Ward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning founder and chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Richmond Symphony founder and music director Edgar Schenkman.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Walter Braxton established himself as one of Richmond’s most promising young musicians and composers. - CLIPS COURTESY OF THE RICHMOND PUBLIC LIBRARY.
  • Clips courtesy of the Richmond Public Library.
  • Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Walter Braxton established himself as one of Richmond’s most promising young musicians and composers.

Prior to founding the Richmond Symphony in 1957, Schenkman had no success attempting to integrate the Norfolk Symphony because of a resistant board of directors. But after 1957 he had “better luck championing black performers in Richmond,” according to his son, artist Joe Schenkman.

And when Braxton, as a young, black composer, took his first works to Schenkman, the director was impressed. “[Walter] told me he had been listening to the sophisticated sounds of Bartok and Hindemith,” Schenkman told The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Carole Kass in January 1969. “Imagine! With a limited amount of formal musical education, and at 16, he not only listens to Bartok and Hindemith, he is influenced into writing his own really impressive works.”

“Walter Braxton could very well bring attention to Richmond in music just as Arthur Ashe has done in tennis,” Schenkman told Kass. “He is brimming over with musical talent, he really has it.” Braxton is, in fact, related by marriage to Richmond’s tennis legend, and he saw Ash at many family reunions.

1969 was a banner year for the 16-year-old. He conducted the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra in a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” (from “Lohengrin”) at John Marshall High School. “It was snowing outside and the audience went wild,” he recalls, “and my parents were there and able to see me in my prime.”

The following year his father died, he says, “just as he and I were getting close.” It affected him deeply. His dad worked irregular hours and slept during the day, and Braxton says he was introverted in school. His music and friends had served as a distraction between him and his father, he says. “When I was 18, I really needed somebody to confide in and lean on and that was the very time he was taken away from me. It was a tremendous loss to me.”

At the end of that decade he played principal flute at the International Music Festival Institute with the London Symphony Orchestra and played a gig with the Miami Opera Guild under a Cuban conductor.

Walter Braxton makes his daily trek to a West Broad Street Starbucks, where he composes. “I used to own a car,” he says, “but things have changed since that time.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Walter Braxton makes his daily trek to a West Broad Street Starbucks, where he composes. “I used to own a car,” he says, “but things have changed since that time.”

Braxton’s life took a dramatic turn as an 18-year-old when he was chosen as one of fewer than a dozen black students to study at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

He quickly assimilated into the music culture there, although his roommate was a drug dealer. “He used to wake me up at 6 in the morning and say ‘Come on, let’s try this,’ and I puffed on a stick of hashish, and it blew my head wide open,” Braxton says. Like many teenagers in the late 1960s, he’d been introduced to marijuana by friends but never considered himself an abuser.

But whether it was from a combination of the roommate’s influence, the pressures of school or his workload, Braxton suffered a serious mental and physical breakdown in April 1970. That’s when he was first diagnosed with a schizo-effective disorder.

“I woke up one Saturday and I could not move,” he says. “The dorm parent gave me a tranquilizer and called the doctor, and he decided to put me in the psychiatric ward for four days at Forsythe Memorial Hospital.” He was prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, and remained on it for nine years before switching to lithium carbonate, on which he remains today.

“I fell hard,” he says, without elaboration.

Undaunted, Walter completed his sophomore year. He still recalls his first experience with Deep South prejudice, the result of a review he penned in December 1970 for the school newspaper. It critiqued the performance of a 14-year-old white girl named Leslie Spotz, and caused the dean of music to call Walter and his mother on the carpet.

“He said they never heard a black man speak about a white woman like that before,” Braxton says. “You don’t know what it was like going to school in the South like that, being black. So the dean of music [a white man] confronted me and my mother and told her he was going to have to recommend that I go into the hospital for a little while. I don’t know to this day what I did wrong.”

Today that review seems tame, even erudite: “Her performance showed an acute awareness of inner voices and harmonic diction made meaningful by her use of mature knowledge of keyboard technique, her well-defined tonal conception, and her precision of phrasing,” it read in part. “Her performance, unfortunately poorly attended, was a mature statement of her musicality that is indeed a composite of a celestial gift, good musical taste, and excellent training.”

“I think the dean was concerned that I had overstepped my boundary, or that maybe I needed protection,” Braxton says, trying to justify the dean’s reaction to the review. “[Gov.] George Wallace was around at that time, preaching segregation, and white people didn’t know what to think of all these Negroes coming to their schools and especially bright ones like me, and trying to act like everyone else when they know we are different from them.”

Braxton with his composition tools inside the James Branch Cabell Room of the VCU library. “I have to take more time to depict as explicitly as possible my detail and instruction,” he says. “My responsibility is not just to get the music down on paper but to make sure it is understood the way it was written.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Braxton with his composition tools inside the James Branch Cabell Room of the VCU library. “I have to take more time to depict as explicitly as possible my detail and instruction,” he says. “My responsibility is not just to get the music down on paper but to make sure it is understood the way it was written.”

Today, the girl he reviewed, Leslie Spotz, is a professor of music at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and a renowned pianist who recently performed extensively in Argentina and Milan, Italy.

Writing 10 compositions his final semester, Walter left the school in 1974 without a degree but returned to complete his requirements three years later. “When he came out of the North Carolina school he was different; his mind was scattered and unfocused,” Orchestra director Rex Britton says. “Some elements of his music showed very good musicianship, some needed a lot of work — it was really in and out.”

Back in Virginia, the Richmond Sinfonia planned to close its 1974-’75 season with a performance of selections by Wolfgang Mozart, Aintzina Lekeu, Joseph Haydn — and Braxton.

The 22-year-old’s “Suite Cinematographie for Chamber Orchestra” was to premier at this performance at the Scottish Rite Temple on Hermitage Road, but was withdrawn at the last minute by conductor Jacques Houtmann. “There were mistakes in that sinfonia piece that made it too difficult and sometimes unplayable without corrections and much rehearsal time spent,” Britton says. “Houtmann was a conductor, not a fixer, so the piece was not played. Walter was devastated by the decision.”

Braxton joined the Air Force in 1976 in an attempt to broaden his personal horizons. He went off his medication to pass the physical, then on his 22nd day he awoke to find that one of his personal demons had returned. “I couldn’t lift my arms, and I was only a week away from completing basic training,” he says. The military hastily labeled him schizophrenic and sent him home.

Throughout the late ’70s Braxton continued to compose, and took classes at Virginia Commonwealth University as a nondegree seeking student to hone his craft. And in the ’80s he got the opportunity to work with Allan Blank and Dika Newlin.

“Dika helped me reorganize my portfolio and give it some direction,” Braxton says. “She added finishing details on my style, little things on how to turn a phrase or correctly work with words. But I had a ways to go with the acclimation of the words in my opera, which I had started. I was struggling with that.”

Walter is less a fan of Newlin and the 12-tone composers as he is an admirer of Johannes Brahms, Paul Hindemith, Bela Bartok, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Handel. He composes much the way those old masters did, with pencil or ink on paper.

He respects the “fidelity, clarity and honesty of the presentation” of Mozart. “I consider myself a modern romantic,” he says of his work. “My compositions fall within the boundaries of form and structure, as well as harmonic rhythm and counterpoint. I have to juxtapose ideas against one another … melodically, harmonically and structurally. I depend on my intuition to guide me when I am composing.”

VCU’s Cabell Library has the only copy of his requiem Mass for 29 instruments. It is a stack of hand-written scores almost a foot tall.

As for his process, Braxton says: “I can figure a chord progression on the piano, the harmony the way I want to go, then I go back and create a melody to go on top of it. So I hear in my head, and pick it out on the piano and write it down as I go, note for note in accordance with the harmonic progression I have already figured out. Then I go back and apply this to the orchestral score, dealing with a few instruments at a time. So I go about scoring the music for who is playing at that time.”

In 1981, Braxton began work on his opera, “To Damascus, Opus 4, No. 3, an Opera in 5 Acts,” to fulfill a dream he carried since he was a young composer at the North Carolina School of the Arts. “I was jealous of a friend named Keith Gates,” he says of the prolific contemporary composer and former classmate who wrote more than 100 compositions before he died in 2007.

“To Damascus” is about a funeral procession, using six liturgical ordinaries of the Roman Catholic Mass as a foundation for most of the choral parts, with borrowed lines from Thomas Mann and August Strindberg’s drama “The Road to Damascus” as dialogue for the soloist to sing above the choir’s chants, intertwining the procession of the Mass and the text of the play.

“I accompanied the ordinary of the Mass with complementary material from the Episcopal hymn book and from the book of Job,” Walter says. “I changed the man’s part in the original to a mezzosoprano and gave it to a female, so she would be dressed in blue Bermuda shorts and a bowtie and she will look like a little boy — just like in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” his only opera, in which a prisoner’s wife had to dress like a man to get into the prison and tell her husband she was trying to save him.”

Strindberg’s demanding 1898 trilogy “The Road to Damascus” is a curious but almost preordained work for Braxton to emulate. This literary Medieval-style drama probes into the complicating issues of penance and conversion, belief in God, denouncement of worldly things, insanity, death and eternity as the protagonist begins on a street corner and passes through seven stations on his way to an asylum.

Braxton reaches for the first of several cups of coffee while composing inside Starbucks. “My musical legacy should be one of universal brotherhood,” he says. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Braxton reaches for the first of several cups of coffee while composing inside Starbucks. “My musical legacy should be one of universal brotherhood,” he says.

Upon reaching it, he returns in reverse order back to the same corner. Strindberg wrote the trilogy as he emerged from the most severe of his many life crises, called his inferno period, which he believed took him to the brink of a breakdown. Like Braxton, Strindberg used his talents to assert and express himself, to summarize his strange psychological experiences with an artistic conclusion of life events.

In the original Biblical account of the road to Damascus, Saul, the hater of Christ, is struck blind in what is believed by many to be a seizure or breakdown of some sort, and then lay sick for three days and three nights before emerging as Paul, apostle of Christ.

Walter hopes for a 2014 Ides of March performance of his opera, adding that he sent an early copy to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and they indicated an interest in performing it if he can get the complete version to them in a timely manner. “But I want to set up a foundation on which to build here in Richmond first,” he says, “possibly between the city library, VCU and University of Richmond so I can perform it myself.”

“Braxton is a very economical composer,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Clark Bustard wrote in May 1992, reviewing a concert of Braxton’s original material at the Richmond Public Library’s Gellman Room. “His style could be described as post-impressionist. His melodies recall those of Fauré, or some of the ’20s Parisian school known as ‘Les Six’ — not unlike ‘new age’ music, only Braxton finishes his tunes. His harmonies are of more recent provenance, with the grey/brown density characteristic of much midcentury composition.”

Britton says the composer’s work has been mixed. “Some of the pieces are really nice, and some of them are so slow. [Walter’s] pieces reflect his life at that time: sometimes slow and melancholy, but other times fast and really almost unplayable.”

But there have been scarce few performances of Braxton’s compositions since 2000. The VCU Barnes and Noble was host to a performance of his “Praedulium” in 2009, under his direction and with his handpicked musicians. In 2006 Walter’s first piece of the Dance Suite (Opus 4, No. 7) for flute and piano, “The Zingara,” was performed at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center.

Braxton missed that performance.

“I was in the hospital for drug addiction — that’s what they called it, anyway,” he says. “I was evicted from my apartment by the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority. They were responsible for me at the time, and one afternoon while my case manager was still sitting outside my apartment in his car, a whole bunch of people came into my apartment while I was sitting at my table sketching the music to “The Zingara.” So I wasn’t doing any drugs at that time, but he saw this big crowd of people coming in and he figured they were getting high with Walter Braxton.”

After leaving his apartment, he lived for a brief period with his brother before attending a mandatory 28-day drug treatment program to rid himself of that demon. Today, he sees a nurse practitioner who allows him three cigarettes every four hours, prescribes his medicine and helps with socialization. “I’m not a very sociable person, so they claim,” he says.

Around November 2012, Braxton was forced from one assisted living facility on Grace Street to a new one over a licensing issue. He thought he was getting away from drug culture but found himself back in the middle of it. “I was making some money from my scores and my music and [some fellow residents] wanted every cent I was making to buy crack,” he says. “I put my foot down. I am clean again — I don’t want to see myself balled up on the floor or on my bed as a result of bad crack.”

Braxton’s dosage of lithium carbonate was cut in half last year, and he believes he no longer needs it. But much of his personal and musical future is in doubt. He’s been rebuffed by the Richmond Symphony, whose director effusively praised him almost 50 years ago. And without the protective umbrella of a university music department, benefactor or foundation, financing and resources are almost nonexistent.

“My musicians are tired of donating their time to my cause without compensation,” he says in the Broad Street Starbucks, in the shadow of a Pike Roast with cream and sugar and his 315-page director’s score for “To Damascus.” ,/p>

Although he’s never heard many of his own pieces performed, Braxton pushes down that bitterness and seven days a week keeps composing his organized music despite the disorganizing aspects of his personal life. He embraces his dream of perhaps seeing an orchestra established in Richmond, under his direction, so he can conduct his ballet, a symphony and, of course, his opera.

It’s a daunting dream. But he is a hard-working testament to not just the sporadic joys, but the pervasive difficulties and frustrations of being an unsupported artist in Richmond.

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

Rex Britton, Leslie Spotz, the Richmond Public Library and the North Carolina School of the Arts Semans Library assisted with this story.