Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer George Walker ’41 dies at 96

September 14, 2018

Erich Burnett

George Walker
Photo credit: Courtesy of Oberlin College

Groundbreaking career in performance, composition, and teaching included many firsts among black musicians.

Apart from Mother’s love of hymns and Father’s self-taught piano skills, the Walker household wasn’t an especially musical one until the family’s five-year-old son began tinkering at the keyboard of the piano they had placed in the parlor of their Washington, D.C., home.

Soon, the boy’s playing led to nightly accompaniment to his mother’s singing. Before long, it led to much more.

The young man was George Theophilus Walker, whose prodigious achievements in youth led him to Oberlin Conservatory when he was barely a teenager. From there he crafted a remarkable career as a pianist, composer, and teacher, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996—the first African American to do so—and earning adulation from countless musicians who followed in his path, among them Alvin Singleton, Courtney Bryan ’04, and Anthony Davis.

Throughout his career, Walker was also an outspoken critic of discrimination in the music world—discrimination he had routinely experienced firsthand.

Like his late sister, acclaimed pianist and Oberlin Conservatory Professor Frances Walker ’45, George Walker was a gifted student who forged a life of firsts: He graduated high school by age 14 and four years later completed his degree at Oberlin, where he studied piano with David Moyer and organ with Arthur Poister. In 1945, Walker became the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute, under the guidance of pianist Rudolf Serkin, composition teacher Rosario Scalero, and chamber music coaches William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky.

At that time, he found himself focused on developing a career as a concert pianist. In short order, he made his New York debut at Town Hall, performing his own composition Three Pieces for Piano. He became the first black musician to present a recital at Carnegie Hall. That same year, he also became the first black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra—an experience, he later told The New York Times, that resulted in his first encounter with “the stigma of race.”

In 1950, Walker became the first black instrumentalist to secure major concert management, with National Concert Artists. In performances in America and Europe—he toured seven countries across the continent in 1954—Walker earned praise for his work at the piano, but found his opportunities limited by the managers, agents, and other gatekeepers who frequently selected white performers over their black counterparts.

Alongside his piano career, Walker also became a prolific composer of orchestral and chamber works, ultimately writing nearly 100 pieces over his lifetime. Among those for which he is best remembered is Lyric for Strings, which he wrote in 1946. It was originally the second movement of his first string quartet, a work inspired by the death of his grandmother, a former slave.

After years of writing and performing, Walker resumed his education; in 1956, he became the first African American to earn a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. Upon graduating, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to continue studies in composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Walker began a 32-year teaching career in 1960, first at the New School for Social Research and later at Smith College, where he became the first black faculty member to earn tenure. By 1969, he joined the faculty of Rutgers University and remained there until his retirement as department chair in 1992. He also taught for a time at Dillard University, the Dalcroze School, the University of Delaware, the University of Colorado, and the Peabody Institute, and he delivered master classes across the United States.

In 1996, at age 73, Walker became the first black recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his song cycle Lilacs. Set to Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the 16-minute work was premiered that same year by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Pulitzer Board’s music jury praised the piece as a “passionate, and very American, musical composition” that featured “a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality.”

Other works by Walker were commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, among other ensembles, and Walker himself often played their premieres. The composer claimed to the Washington Post in 2015, however, that even in light of the notoriety brought about by his Pulitzer, opportunities to have his works performed by major orchestras “materialized in nothing.”

Despite his many firsts, Walker aspired foremost to be considered as an accomplished pianist and composer without regard to his race. That notion was challenged from an early age, when as a student he was often pigeonholed by teachers who expected him to bring a jazz sensibility to his playing, though it had not been a young Walker’s inclination to do so. Even Serkin, Walker later recounted to the New York Times, asked him to play Beethoven sonatas “like jazz.” (Throughout his adult life, Walker often lamented that black classical musicians routinely took a back seat to their jazz counterparts.)

Especially early in his career, Walker’s creations hewed closely to the modern classical tradition. By the late 1960s, however, he began to embrace allusions to jazz in his writing, albeit through clever devices buried in complex, atonal pieces.

In a 1987 radio interview, Walker described the duality of his role as a trailblazing musician.

"I've benefited from being a black composer in the sense that when there are symposiums given of music by black composers, I would get performances by orchestras that otherwise would not have done the works," he said. "The other aspect, of course, is that if I were not black, I would have had a far wider dispersion of my music and more performances."

Among his many honors, Walker earned two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions, including Oberlin in 1983.

He returned to Oberlin numerous times, including for a black composers symposium in 1981 and for a concert in his honor in 1997. His works have been performed on campus numerous times, including by his sister Frances.

Walker died August 23, 2018, near his home in Montclair, N.J. He is survived by two sons, violinist Gregory Walker and playwright Ian Walker, and three grandsons. He was married to Helen Siemens.

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