By Anna Pulley
George Walker, the renowned and celebrated American composer, died on August 23, 2018. He was 96.
Walker’s long and distinguished career brought many firsts, including becoming the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize in music, for Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra. He was also the first black pianist to give a recital at Carnegie Hall, in 1945, and was the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, in 1955. As a teacher, Walker became the first black tenured faculty member at Smith College, in 1961.
Born in 1922 in Washington D.C., Walker started playing piano at age five, and at 14, performed his debut recital at Howard University. He graduated from Oberlin at 18 and studied composition in graduate school at the Curtis Institute.
His distinguished academic career included teaching posts at New York’s New School, Rutgers University in New Jersey, the University of Colorado, the University of Delaware, and the Peabody Institute. He’s also the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions.
In 1997, Marion Barry, Washington D.C.’s mayor, declared June 17th to be George Walker Day.
Though his successes were many, Walker was outspoken about the racism and discrimination he experienced as a black instrumentalist and composer.
“From the outset [National Concert Artists, his management company] explained that getting concerts for me—a black pianist playing classical music—would be an uphill battle,” he told the New York Times. “ ‘We can’t sell you,’ they told me.”
In the face of the many obstacles he encountered in his long career, Walker’s perseverance and fortitude paid off, as evidenced by his many accolades and Pulitzer win.
Lilacs was set to the 1865 poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” by Walt Whitman, who wrote it as an elegy to Abraham Lincoln. Walker’s composition premiered in 1996 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Pulitzer committee’s vote for Lilacs was unanimous.
Despite his many accomplishments, much of Walker’s output remains unjustly ignored, as Thomas May noted in his 2017 Strings feature on Walker. A great place to start exploring his work, May suggests, is Walker’s array of compositions for strings.
“I never played a string instrument, but somehow strings have always fascinated me,” Walker said. “I can’t explain why that is.”
Below is his “Lyric for Strings,” which was written in memory of his grandmother.
Even in his last years, Walker continued to create and compose and break barriers. His advice to young composers? “Listen to lots of music.”
He continues, “Composers today don’t have teachers who believe in the same way in the importance of studying counterpoint and the elements of skill. But I think you need to absorb and understand what other composers have done in the past before you can set about changing and creating something new. What will represent your own voice will come out.”