When the caller notified alumnus George Walker that he had won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for music for his composition Lilacs, the first African-American to receive the honor in its 80-year history says he could hardly believe the news. The astounded 73-year-old retired professor did not even immediately share the news with his sister, Francis Walker-Slocum '42. The professor emerita of pianoforte at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music learned of the award, second-hand, from private students at her home in Oberlin. It was only after hearing a news broadcast, promptly followed by the delivery of masses of flowers and congratulations and an influx of television cameras, photographers and reporters, that George Walker was assured that he had actually been selected for the honor.
Photograph courtesy of George Walker
His winning composition is a 16-minute cycle of four songs for voice and orchestra based on stanzas from Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed." At its world premiere in February, the work, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was performed under the baton of Seiji Ozawa at Symphony Hall. Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer called it "profoundly responsive to the images in his (Whitman's) text--you can hear the sway of lilacs in the rhythm, smell their fragrance in the harmony." Members of the Pulitzer nominating committee praised the piece as "--masterful and rigorous, one that deepens with successive hearings, yet grips an audience from the first."
Walker, born in Washington, D.C., in 1922, was immersed in classical music from his earliest years. His physician father, George Walker, had taught himself to play the piano, and encouraged his son to devote his time to musical studies; his mother, Rosa King Walker, was an accomplished pianist who supervised her son's first lessons when he was 5. "We had nothing but classical music growing up," Walker recalls. He entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music at 15 and immediately after graduation went on to earn an Artist Diploma from the Curtis Institute, studying piano with Rudolph Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero and Gian Carlo Menotti. He obtained a second diploma in piano, studying with Robert Cadeuseus at The American Academy in Fontainebleau, followed by a doctorate in music from the Eastman School of Music, awarded in 1957. That same year he returned to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship to study composition with Nadia Boulanger and Gregor Piatigorsky.
As a performer, Walker has concertized extensively throughout Europe and the States while publishing over 70 compositions, including overtures, sinfonias, concertos, string quartets, cantatas, and a Mass. The New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts have all commissioned works by Walker, which he not only composed, but often performed at the premieres.
Walker has lectured and held master classes at many of the country's top-rated colleges and universities, and has been on the academic faculty at Dillard, The New School, the Dalcroze School, Smith College, the University of Delaware, and the Peabody Institute. He retired from Rutgers as department chair after teaching music there for 27 years.
Walker has frequently expressed his view that black classical composers and performers have never been recognized professionally as readily as black jazz musicians.
After all the media attention following the announcement of the Pulitzers, the composer said he planned to spend the summer at home in the peaceful greenery of Montclair, New Jersey. He is preparing for a new CD of the piano repertory of Chopin, Bach, and others, to be released in the fall, and readying himself for a guest performance with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in early 1997.
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