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Walker, George(1922–) - Composer, Gets Late Start Composing, Refers to Poet for Orchestral Piece, Pulitzer Piece One of Many

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When the 1996 Pulitzer Prize recipients were announced at Columbia University in New York, George Walker became the first African American to receive the prestigious distinction for music. It was a triumphant moment for Walker, whom the New York Times described as “a not-quite-overnight sensation,” as he was more than sixty years into his career. In the Pulitzer’s eighty-year history, Walker was the first black composer to win the award for music. The Pulitzer committee’s selection “served to recognize an often overlooked minority group within a minority group: black musicians who compose classical music,” according to the Times .

George Walker was born on June 27, 1922, in Washington D.C. His father was a Jamaican immigrant who came to the United States with no money but was determined to become a doctor. He put himself through medical school but was barred entry to the American Medical Association, which did not accept African Americans. Undeterred, he formed his own medical groups to conduct research with colleagues. George’s mother, who tutored neighborhood children in math and writing, was known for her beautiful singing voice.

Walker began playing the piano when he was five years old. He gave his first concert at age fourteen at Howard University, and the next year he started at Oberlin College as a music major. He then attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied piano under famed pianist Rudolph Serkin. Serkin, like many others, seemed surprised that his student was a purely classical musician. “Imagine my puzzlement,” Walker recalled in an article he wrote for the New York Times in 1991, when Serkin told him to play part of a Beethoven sonata “like jazz.” Serkin was just as surprised to hear his protégé tell him he did not play jazz and had never even listened to jazz until college.

Gets Late Start Composing

Primarily interested in a career as a concert pianist, Walker did not start composing until he was eighteen. He made his debut at Town Hall in New York City in 1945, followed by a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Despite receiving “wonderful notices,” as he recalled, it took Walker five years to find a management agency that would handle a black pianist. If not for the roadblocks facing a black performer in the 1950s, he might have made a career as a concert pianist, he told the Times : “I never got the opportunities that would have allowed me to concertize like a white pianist.” But he added: “I never felt bitter. I strongly felt if I continued to press for what I hoped to achieve, I would achieve it.”

In 1953, National Concert Artists booked him on his first European tour, which took him to Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Italy, and England. While on tour, he became seriously ill with ulcers and was in agony most of the time. When he came back to the United States, he realized that, if he continued to perform when he was sick, he risked seriously affecting his health. Walker’s father encouraged him to teach, so in 1956 he earned a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Bulenje, who he claims was the first person to acknowledge his talent as a composer. When Walker’s grandmother died in 1946, he composed the “Lyric for Strings (Lament),” his first orchestral work.

In 1961, he accepted teaching appointments at Smith College in Massachusetts and the University of Colorado, and in 1969 he joined the faculty of Rutgers University, where he became the chairman of the music department. He retired in 1992 during a dispute with the university over back pay and benefits that was resolved in March 1993.

Refers to Poet for Orchestral Piece

In 1995, Walker was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a work for tenor and orchestra to commemorate Roland Hayes, the famous black tenor, whose career began in Boston with the symphony. Walker referred to Walt Whitman’s “While Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom,” about the funeral train of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Walker said he had drawn inspiration from folk sources, spirituals, popular music and jazz “in small snippets so they’re not recognizable,” according to the New York Times . He composed the piece in his dining room at his Steinway concert grand piano.

In “Lilacs,” he said, he used Whitman’s piece because Lincoln represented freedom and emancipation to blacks. Lilacs, Walker has said, also have a personal tie for him, as his family used to visit relatives who lived amid lilacs in Virginia.

Walker’s body of work, including overtures, symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, cantatas and a Mass, consists mostly of compositions for full orchestra, for chamber orchestra, and for instrumental combinations. “Lilacs” was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February 1996. Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote: “There is wonderful music in this cycle, which is profoundly responsive to the images in the text—you can hear the sway of lilacs in the rhythm, smell their fragrance in the harmony,” according to the Washington Post .

Pulitzer Piece One of Many

“Lilacs” was Walker’s seventieth published work. His commissions include works for the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among many others. His works and piano interpretations have also been recorded on three CDs: George Walker: A Portrait, George Walker in Recital , and George Walker .

“Lilacs” came to the attention of the Pulitzer Prize Committee when one of Walker’s two sons, a violinist in Colorado, submitted it. A rash of crank calls had been interrupting Walker at his music for the previous year, so when the telephone rang on a Tuesday afternoon in April 1996, as he worked over an organ piece, he picked it up expecting to hear the familiar click of a hang-up. Instead, he was told that he had just won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for music.

“It’s something one can never expect or take for granted; it’s a kind of gift,” Walker told the New York Times . Members of the Pulitzer nominating jury praised the piece as “masterly and rigorous,” according to the Times , “one that deepens with successive hearings yet grips an audience from the first.” Richard Wernick, chairman of the five-member music panel that recommended Walker to the Pulitzer Prize board, described “Lilacs” as “an American piece,” adding, “don’t ask me to define that.”

As television vans, photographers, and reporters flooded Walker’s quiet suburban street, Walker maintained his perspective. “It’s always nice to be known as the first doing anything, but what’s more important is the recognition that this work has quality,” Walker told USA Today .

Chronology

1922

Born in Washington D.C. on June 27

1927

Begins studying piano

1940

Begins composing

1945

Makes debut at Town Hall in New York City

1946

Composes his first orchestral work, “Lyric for Strings (Lament)”

1953

Makes first European tour

1956

Earns a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York

1961

Accepts teaching appointments at Smith College in Massachusetts and the University of Colorado

1969

Joins the faculty of Rutgers University

1992

Retires from Rutgers University

1995

Receives commission from Boston Symphony Orchestra; composes “Lilacs”

1996

Wins Pulitzer Prize for music

Walker, Hal(c. 1934–2003) - Television journalist, Chronology, Above All Else, a Professional [next] [back] Walgreen, Charles - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Charles Walgreen

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