He occupies more than one slot in the pantheon of American music. Along with breaking through the race barrier multiple times, as a piano virtuoso and as a composer, George Walker continues to sustain a creative life in his 90s that is of a very rare order—one reminiscent of Elliott Carter and Henri Dutilleux. Just before celebrating his 95th birthday in June, Walker shares his thoughts about a richly productive life.
By Thomas May
Photography by Frank Schramm
When he published his memoirs in 2009, George Theophilus Walker chose the title Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. It was at the keyboard that he first formed his musical identity, starting when he was five. Precocious musically and intellectually, Walker graduated from high school at 14 and in the yearbook announced his intention to become a concert pianist—which is precisely what he proceeded to do, in characteristic Walker fashion. With unwavering determination, he initially focused on his career as a performer.
“I come from a family of pianists,” Walker points out during a recent conversation from his home in Montclair, New Jersey. Born in 1922, he grew up in an arts-loving household in Washington, DC. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, had arrived in the United States with just a few dollars but became a respected physician who taught himself piano for enjoyment; his highly musical mother watched over George’s first lessons. Frances Walker-Slocum, his sister (now 93), also became a professional pianist and a professor of the instrument at the Oberlin Conservatory, from which George graduated at the age of 18, having concentrated on piano and organ.
When Walker began studying composition in graduate school at the Curtis Institute, it wasn’t so much an end in itself as it was a secondary activity. “I had so much energy that I wanted to do something else after spending hours practicing at the keyboard!” Walker recalls. He also believed learning the secrets of composing would help hone his interpretive skills performing the classic repertoire.
Just two weeks after Walker’s debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1945, he appeared as the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. He was later signed to National Concert Artists, a dominant management company at the time. All of these were first-time achievements for an African-American instrumentalist. Walker’s musicianship earned positive reviews, and he undertook an extensive European tour in 1954, during which he continued to win more acclaim.
Yet coveted performance opportunities remained frustratingly scarce. In a 1982 interview with the New York Times just before the premiere of his Cello Concerto (a New York Philharmonic commission), Walker lamented that “those successes were meaningless, because without the sustained effect of follow-up concerts my career had no momentum. And because I was black, I couldn’t get either major or minor dates.” He noted that fellow white students at Curtis “were assured of 25 to 30 concerts a season, but I was lucky if I got seven. It was like being excommunicated from society. I was unwanted.’’
Eventually, despairing that his musical life was at a dead end, Walker found himself compelled to divert his extraordinary gifts from performance into the realm of teaching. And, little by little, into writing his own music. In the process, Walker gradually added a varied and challenging catalogue of work that has made him a genuine American cultural treasure. Now, at age 95, he additionally belongs to the rarefied ranks of composers who remain creatively active at an advanced age.
Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996 for Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra—a magnificent, densely textured setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman—much of Walker’s output remains unjustly neglected. A great place to start exploring his work is his array of compositions for strings. “I never played a string instrument, but somehow strings have always fascinated me,” remarks Walker. “I can’t explain why that is.”
That perspective may explain something of the originality of this composer’s extensive writing for strings. Among these works are solo, chamber, and orchestral scores (the concertante pieces have been commissioned by such first-class ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra): Bleu for unaccompanied violin, two quartets, a pair of violin-piano sonatas, violin and cello concertos, Poeme for violin and orchestra, Dialogus for cello and orchestra, a viola sonata, and a cello sonata. “I always wanted to write something for each of the string instruments,” says Walker, though the double bass remains a challenge he has yet to cross off his bucket list: “I find the instrument is too easily covered by the orchestra.”
“In playing his Cello Sonata, you’re engulfed in a state of beauty and episodic turmoil,” observes Seth Parker Woods, a maverick American cellist and performance artist who is a rising star of the young generation. “One of the things I love is that its amazing melodic lines fit perfectly in the hand, as if they were molded all along for a cellist. It’s a brilliant work that I really would love to see more and more younger and older cellists performing. George Walker’s music is of monumental status and importance.” Woods is also a member of the UK-based Chineke! Orchestra, which is on the BBC Proms roster this summer with a program that will include Lyric for Strings, Walker’s most frequently performed work.
“In playing his Cello Sonata, you’re engulfed in a state of beauty and episodic turmoil.”
—Seth Parker Woods, cellist
In fact, Lyric originates from a string quartet. Walker wrote it as a very young man, in 1946—when he still identified above all as a pianist, and before he had begun to remake himself as a composer. It began as the brief, profoundly moving second movement (Molto Adagio) of his String Quartet No. 1. Walker made this into an independent piece for string orchestra, à la Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, who had also been taught at the Curtis Institute by the violinist-composer Rosario Scalero, one of Walker’s most formative mentors.
As a student of piano and composition at Curtis, Walker took lessons from Rudolf Serkin, violist William Primrose, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Scalero in particular imprinted on him a work ethic and a sense of rigor and discipline that have guided him ever since. “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.” He emphasizes his advice to young composers: “Listen to lots of music.” He’s an unabashed advocated of the “canon,” of “pieces that have achieved a certain status such that you don’t have to question their quality, so the task becomes to understand what it is that makes up that quality.”
As his graduation piece, Walker wrote a sonata for violin and piano he decided to disown—even though the hard-to-please Scalero had liked it. Then, soon after his Town Hall debut that year (in 1945), “for some reason, in my early 20s, I was determined to write a string quartet. I had just written the first movement and was starting the second when I learned that my grandmother had died,” Walker recalls. The string orchestra version of the Adagio, dedicated to her memory, received its premiere via radio broadcast, under the title Lament.
Family connections have played a crucial role in Walker’s creative work throughout his career. He dedicated his 1991 Poeme—the revised version of an earlier violin concerto that is “by no means a tranquil piece”—to his mother, and his Violin Concerto (2008) is a late-period masterpiece whose impetus was a father’s love and admiration for his son. With his former wife, the music historian Helen Walker-Hill (1936–2013), Walker had two sons who both became artists. Ian Walker is a playwright, actor, and director based in San Francisco (he authored Dutch, about the famous art forger Han van Meegeren); older brother Gregory Walker followed more directly in his father’s footsteps and pursued a career as a musician, but chose the violin in lieu of the family tradition of piano.
“Gregory really had no aptitude for the piano, but then he discovered the violin and became fascinated,” Walker remembers. After studying with Yuval Yaron, a pupil of Heifetz, Gregory Walker went on to become concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra. He teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder (where Walker was a visiting professor in 1968) and has also become involved in the realm of electronic music and video art as well. Walker composed the Violin Concerto “in secret” to present as a gift, hoping to give his son’s career a major boost.
A loan from the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation enabled Gregory Walker to unveil his father’s concerto playing the 1718 Strad on which Zoltán Székely gave the first performance of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto in 1939. After the premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Neemi Järvi in 2009—64 years after his father had broken through the race barrier to play Rachmaninoff’s Third with the same ensemble—Gregory took it on tour to Europe and recorded it (with Ian Hobson conducting the Sinfonia Varsovia).
In 2010 Gregory Walker recounted the story of his living with the Violin Concerto for Strings, where he pithily but aptly summed up the character of his father’s music as well known “for its craftsmanship, intensity, and complexity. It’s not easy listening, but dad believes if the music is perfect, it will speak for itself.” Along with providing a musical gift for his son, George Walker wanted to create a work “that would be totally different from the standard repertoire, using the orchestra in a different way.” He mentions such features as a full-on fugue in the final movement’s exposition.
Walker wrote a sort of addendum for his son in 2011 with the solo violin piece Bleu—extremely difficult music in a complex, painstakingly crafted idiom. “I thought it would be nice to write an encore for Gregory to use in recitals,” the composer explains with a sly note in his voice (fully aware of how technically fiendish the piece is). Last year violinist and conductor William Harvey completed a project in which he performed for one week in each of the 50 states in the United States; he played Bleu in all of his concerts.
Throughout his lengthy career, Walker has never been content to rest on laurels. He is a mindful, consummate craftsman who believes music has something serious and ennobling to convey. His works in recent years do not follow the pattern of radical simplicity and paring down associated with some composers’ “late-period” style. Indeed, there has been an intensifying complexity of the harmonic language and polyphony. In his latest large-scale project, the still-unheard Sinfonia No. 5, Walker addresses the 2015 Charleston church massacre by incorporating a brief, poetic text he wrote, which is shared by five narrators. He also weaves in musical references to a spiritual, a hymn, and Americana.
Walker here has devised a technique of combining musical fragments that he likens to the situation of the Tower of Babel. “No one can understand each other, no matter how hard they try. Musically, each presentation of the quoted material preserves its distinctiveness, but this is all entwined in a rigorous recurrence of the principal idea. I’ve never done that before, where the principal idea recurs in various guises so consistently.”
“This late-in-life drive in his music is really quite remarkable,” says Pierre Ruhe, the Alabama Symphony’s director of artistic administration and former classical critic of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You hear this enormous capacity and need to communicate.” Ruhe believes that Walker’s music will make its breakthrough to wider recognition “when a major conductor champions his music and does so consistently.”
In the meantime, Walker continues to follow where his musical instinct takes him. “More and more, I realize the power of music—the power of the interval, of rhythm, of being exact in what I put down as what I meant to hear.”