Past the Pulitzer
Do African American composers have a place in the classical music
Tamima Friedman 83 / photo by Arthur Paxton
Walker is angry, although you wouldnt know it from the sound
of his voice. Dressed in a dark wool suit, he is sitting in the
living room of his modest home in Montclair, New Jersey, where he
has lived for 30 years, speaking in soft-spoken tones that can barely
be heard. Other than a tennis injury that sidelined him temporarily
from his favorite sport, Walker, who turned 80 this June, shows
few signs of his age. Given his busy schedule of travel, speaking,
recording, and composing, another birthday is the last thing on
his mind. I dont want to think about that, he
insists. He has just returned from engagements in Delaware and North
Carolina and is looking forward to the upcoming performance of his
Cantata by the Oratorio Society of New Jersey.
quiet demeanor belies a passion and energy that emerge from time
to time as he jumps up to retrieve the score of a recent composition
or speaks about things that irk himlike the Jersey tomato,
just ripe for pickingthat was plucked mysteriously from his
garden last summer. But he grows even quieter when talking about
issues that trouble him profoundly, such as why there has been little
public interest in his work despite the momentous spring of 1996,
when he became the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer
Prize in music. His winning composition, Lilacs, a 16-minute
work for soprano and orchestra, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony
Orchestra and premiered in February of that year.
fact is that with all the publicity, Lilacs has had only
a few performances, one of which was at Oberlin, Walker says.
And even if that work were not performed, there certainly
is reason to expect that other works of mine might be done, or that
I might be commissioned by orchestras.
says Walker, that hasnt been the casean experience that
reinforces his belief that African American classical composers
and performers lack the acceptance and recognition of their jazz
counterparts. It really boils down to assumptions that are
made that are never fully counteracted, he says. Blacks
are accepted as entertainers involved in dance and singing, but
as (classical) composers and performers, were met with resistanceto
the point that its kind of a reinstatement of a ghetto.
Still, some might argue that Walker himself has managed to escape
such ghettoization. His distinguished career includes a long list
of achievements. After graduating in 1941 with the highest honors
in his Conservatory class, he attended the Curtis Institute of Music,
where he studied with pianist Rudolf Serkin. He was the first black
instrumentalist to perform in Town Hall in 1945, as well as the
first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School
of Music in 1955. In 1957, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship
and spent two years in Paris, where he studied with influential
teacher and composer Nadia Boulanger. He has taught at Smith College,
the University of Colorado, and Rutgers, and has seen more than
80 of his works published with commissions from the New York Philharmonic,
the Cleveland Orchestra, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the
Performing Arts. In 1983, Oberlin awarded him an honorary doctor
of music degree.
says he was lucky in his relationship with his first publisher and
champion, Paul Kapp at General Music Publishing Company. I
would give Paul a manuscript of something that hadnt even
been performed, and he would have it engraved without any cost to
Walker was never interested in leaving behind a body of work to
molder on a shelf. Grants and fellowships are one thing, but
performances are another, he says. And when it comes to performances
of his works, Walker believes that he has not had an easy time.
Witness New York Citys music festival, A Great Day in New
York, organized last year to focus public attention on the stylistic
diversity of 52 living composers in greater New York. Walker was
not among them. I was never called, he says, his irritation
palpable. The inconsistency is very disturbing. When there
are opportunities to be involved in groups that are very active
in contemporary music, there is no attempt to make contact with
omission from the New York music festival comes as no surprise to
some. Since composers are the least profitable part of the
music-world pie, they have been increasingly marginalized from the
professional world, says a prominent New York musician who
asked not to be named. The number of worthy musicians who
live in obscurity is quite large, and the musical communitys
sense of responsibility to its older members is nonexistent, unless
theres a buck to be made.
sad state of affairs was brought home to Walker recently when he
stumbled upon two articles on commissions awarded over the years
by the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
I was not on the list for either, despite the fact that Ive
had five works done by the New York Philharmonic, and its
only been six years since the Boston Symphony performed my Pulitzer
Prize piece, he says.
when it comes to recordings, Walker is not the only composer left
standing in the cold. When the New York Philharmonic put together
CDs of its works, he says, the only African American composer included
was Duke Ellington. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not a single
black composer was represented. The Boston [Symphony] compilation
was of their radio broadcasts. My piece from 1996 was certainly
broadcast, but it was not included in the list.
went to great pains to have a performance of Lilacs released
after it was premiered and taped by the Boston Symphony. For months,
he wracked his brain wondering how to raise $17,000 to buy one of
the symphonys broadcast tapes. But that sum covered the orchestras
costs only; there would still be conductor and soloist fees, as
well as a tape to be edited and mastered. He began to lose hopeuntil
he met Timothy Russell, conductor of the Arizona State University
Symphony Orchestra. Russell, who wanted his orchestra to perform
Lilacs and had ties to Summit Records, agreed to approach
the company about recording the work. In fact, it was recorded
the very day after the performance, Walker says. That
meant I could use something of very good quality.
admits that it can be difficult for institutions to make choices
when they release such a limited number of CDs. But again,
what Im talking about is this whole kind of inconsistency.
A lot of these orchestras are involved in outreach programs. They
make a big thing of Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month,
and they think that is sufficient. Its not. Furthermore,
he says, the need to create cultural icons has resulted in the promotion
of just a few composers as the American composers.
Composers such as Copland and Gershwin and Bernstein. Whatever
virtues they have in their music, they dont begin to represent
all American music, he says.
these obstacles, Walker believes that composers today are more interested
than ever in creating works that communicate, which has resulted
in an enormous range of music available for study and performance.
At the moment, composers have stepped back from their so-called
futuristic aspirationsstated so vociferously by composers
like [Pierre] Boulezto the point where they actually feel
like theyd like to have an audience, he says.
focus of Walkers own compositions has been with symphony orchestras,
where you get a sizeable audience to hear your music.
He has several post-Pulitzer projects up his sleeve to create more
interest in his work, including a wonderful arrangement
with Albany Records to record his compositions and the standard
piano repertoire he played in his concertizing days. Walker tapes
everything himself. I provide Albany with the finished CD,
he explains. Its edited and mastered. I simply send
it to them with the notes, and we decide on a cover photo.
his recent compositions, Walker is especially proud of Canvas,
a complex work in three movements for wind ensemble, five speaking
voices, and chorus commissioned by the North Texas University Wind
Ensemble. Ive also just finished a song that Im
extremely pleased with, he confides. Nobody knows about
it yet. The manuscript lies waiting on Walkers Steinway,
a copyist due shortly to pick it up. It is a setting of And Wilt
Thou Leave Me Thus by the 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Walker tried to set the poem 25 years ago but discarded his effort,
as is his habit with works he feels are not up to snuff. Then he
met cellist Yo-Yo Mas father-in-law, John Hornor.
[John] is a very fine bass baritone, Walker says. He
asked me about a year ago if he could commission me to write a song
for him. I said that I had this song in mind.
These days, Walker alternates between composing and practicing for
new piano CDs. Do you want to hear something? he offers.
He is happy to sit down and play, but hes not particularly
interested in performing concerts anymore. Im not up
to that now. I finally decided I would simply concentrate on recording.
It has a more lasting quality. Also, I want to leaveas a pianistsomething
for those who think of me only as a composer.
Walker have any advice for todays up-and-coming composers?
He raises his finger to his lips, ponders a moment, and replies,
Learn as much as you can about the past, and be critical of
what exists in the present.
Friedman is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Montclair,
New Jersey, with her husband, Daniel Rosenblum 83, and two