George Walker (composer)

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George Walker (holding the score) going over his Address for Orchestra with Benjamin Steinberg of the Symphony of the New World, 1968

George Theophilus Walker (born June 27, 1922) is an African-American composer, the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He received the Pulitzer for his work Lilacs in 1996.[1]

Walker is the father of two sons, violinist and composer Gregory T.S. Walker,[2] and playwright Ian Walker.


Early life[edit]

George Theophilus Walker was born in Washington, D.C. on June 27. His father emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica[3] to the United States where he became a physician after graduating from Temple University School of Medicine.[4] Walker's mother, Rosa King, supervised her son's first piano lessons when he was five years old. His first teacher was Miss Mary L. Henry. Mrs. Lillian Mitchell Allen, who had earned a doctorate in music education, became his second piano teacher.[5] Before graduating Dunbar High School, George Walker was presented in his first public recital at age 14 at Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.[citation needed]

He was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory that same year, where he studied piano with David Moyer and organ with Arthur Poister. In 1939, he became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College. Graduating at 18 from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his Conservatory class, he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano with Rudolf Serkin, chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, and composition with Rosario Scalero, teacher of Samuel Barber.[6] He graduated from the Curtis Institute with Artist Diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, becoming the first black graduate of the music school.[7]


Walker was presented in a debut recital in Manhattan's Town Hall. With this "notable" debut, as it was described by the New York Times, he became the first black instrumentalist to perform in that hall.[8] Over the course of the next five decades, he balanced a career as a concert pianist, teacher, and composer. Two weeks after his New York debut, he performed Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy as the winner of the Philadelphia Youth Auditions.

He was the first black instrumentalist to appear with this orchestra. The following year, he played Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony, Reginald Stewart conducting, and the 4th Beethoven Concerto with Dean Dixon and his orchestra. In 1950, Walker became the first black instrumentalist to be signed by a major management, the National Concert Artists.[9] In 1954, he toured seven European countries, playing in the major cities of Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Amsterdam, Frankfurt a Main, Lausanne, Berne, Milan and London.[10]

Upon returning to the United States, he taught at Dillard University in New Orleans for one year before entering the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree Program at the Eastman School of Music in 1955.[11] In 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from that institution as well as the recipient of an Artist Diploma in Piano.[12] George Walker was awarded both a Fulbright Fellowship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1957.

In 1957, he also became the first composer to receive the John Hay Whitney composer award. He spent the next two years in Paris studying composition with Nadia Boulanger. In 1959, he embarked upon another international tour, playing concerts in France, Holland and Italy. After a recital in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1963 sponsored by Mrs. Zimbalist, he received an honorary membership in the Frederic Chopin Society there.[13]

Walker's distinguished career as a teacher continued in 1960 with faculty appointments to the Dalcroze School of Music; The New School for Social Research[14] where he introduced a course in Aesthetics; Smith College (1961–68) where he became the first Black tenured faculty member; the University of Colorado (1968–69) as Visiting Professor; Rutgers University (1969–92) where he served as Chairman of the Music Department for several years; the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (1975–78); and the University of Delaware (1975–76), where he was the recipient of the first Minority Chair established by the University.

He has given Master Classes in numerous institutions including the Curtis Institute of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Columbia University, Wayne State University, Wellesley College, Temple University, Washington University (Saint Louis, Mo.), Williams College, Montclair State University, and the University of Colorado.[15]

In 1946, Walker composed his String Quartet no. 1. The second movement of this work, entitled, Lyric for Strings, became one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by a living American composer.[16] His subsequent body of work included over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus.[17]

Awards and Recognition[edit]

In 1996, Walker became the first black composer to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize In Music for his work, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting. In 1997 Marion Barry, Mayor of Washington, DC, proclaimed June 17 as “George Walker Day”[18] in the nation's capitol.

In 1998, he received the Composers Award from the Lancaster Symphony and the letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for "his significant contributions to the field of contemporary American Music."[19] He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.[20] The following year, George Walker was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.[citation needed]

Over the next several years, he received numerous awards including the Dorothy Maynor Outstanding Arts Citizen Award (2000), Classical Roots Award from the Detroit Symphony (2001), the A.I. Dupont Award from the Delaware Symphony (2002) the Washington Music Hall of Fame (2002), and the Aaron Copland ASCAP Award (2012). He is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships,[11] two Rockefeller Fellowships,[11] a Fromm Foundation commission, two Koussevitsky Awards, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award,[21] as well as honorary doctorate degrees from Lafayette College (1982), Oberlin College (1983), Bloomfield College (1996), Montclair State University(1997), Curtis Institute of Music (1997), Spelman College (2001), and the Eastman School of Music where he gave the Commencement Address (2012).[22]

His autobiography, "Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist", was released in 2009 by Scarecrow Press.[23]

Major compositions[edit]

  • A Red, Red Rose for Voice and Piano
  • Abu for Narrator and Chamber Ensembles (Network for New Music commission)
  • Address for Orchestra
  • An Eastman Overture (Eastman School of Music commission)
  • Antifonys for Chamber Orchestra
  • Bleu for Unaccompanied Violin
  • Cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Boys Choir, and Chamber Orchestra (Boys Choir of Harlem commission)
  • Canvas for Wind Ensemble and Narrator (College Band Directors National Association commission)
  • Cello Concerto (New York Philharmonic commission)
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (National Endowment for the Arts Commission)
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Philadelphia Orchestra premiere with Gregory Walker Gregory T.S. Walker, soloist)
  • Da Camera (Musica Reginae commission)
  • Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra (Cleveland Orchestra commission)
  • Emily Dickinson Songs
  • Five Fancies for Clarinet and Piano Four Hands (David Ensemble commission)
  • Foils for Orchestra (Hommage a Saint George) (Eastman School of Music commission)
  • Folk Songs for Orchestra
  • Guido's Hand (Xerox commission)
  • Hommage to Saint George (Eastman School of Music premiere) (Eastman School of Music commission)
  • Hoopla: A Touch of Glee (Las Vegas Philharmonic premiere)
  • Icarus In Orbit (New Jersey Youth Symphony premiere)
  • In Praise of Folly (New York Philharmonic premiere)
  • Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra (Symphony Boston premiere)
  • Lyric for Strings
  • Mass for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra (National Endowment for the Arts commission)
  • Modus (Cygnus Ensemble commission)
  • Movements for Cello and Orchestra (University of Illinois premiere)
  • Music for 3
  • Music for Brass (Sacred and Profane)
  • Music for Two Pianos
  • Nine Songs for Voice and Piano
  • Orpheus for Narrator and Chamber Orchestra (Cleveland Chamber Orchestra premiere)
  • Overture: In Praise of Folly
  • Pageant and Proclamation (New Jersey Symphony commission)
  • Perimeters for Clarinet and Piano
  • Piano Sonata No. 1
  • Piano Sonata No. 2
  • Piano Sonata No. 3
  • Piano Sonata No. 4
  • Piano Sonata No. 5
  • Poem for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble (National Endowment for the Arts commission)
  • Poeme for Violin and Orchestra (Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere)
  • Psalms for Chorus
  • Serenata for Chamber Orchestra (Michigan Chamber Orchestra commission)
  • Sinfonia No. 1 (Fromm Foundation commission)
  • Sinfonia No. 2 (Koussevitsky commission)
  • Sinfonia No. 3
  • Sinfonia No. 4 (2013 premiere by New Jersey Symphony at Carnegie Hall)
  • Sonata for Two Pianos
  • Sonata for Viola and Piano
  • Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1
  • Spatials for Piano
  • Spektra for Piano
  • Spires for Organ
  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • Tangents for Chamber Orchestra (Columbus Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra commission)
  • Three Pieces for Organ
  • Two Pieces for Organ
  • Variations for Orchestra
  • Violin and Piano Sonata No. 2 (Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts premiere)
  • Windset for Woodwind Quintet


  1. ^ De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR061.
  2. ^ Walker, George (2009) Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Scarecrow Press, p. 153
  3. ^ "Walker, George Theophilus (1922- ) - The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  4. ^ Walker, George (2009) Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Scarecrow Press, p. 2
  5. ^ Walker, George (2009) Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Scarecrow Press, p. 13
  6. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes". Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  7. ^ "Curtis Institute of Music : Timeline". October 17, 1999. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  8. ^ Valdes, Lesley, "Yes, He's A Great Composer For George Walker, 1996 Pulitzer Prize Winner For Music And Dean Of Black Composers, That's Not Enough. He Wants His Prowess As A Pianist To Be Appreciated, Too," Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1996
  9. ^ Mickey Thomas Terry, Ingrid Monson and George Walker, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 372-88
  10. ^ "Composer George Walker | PBS NewsHour". April 10, 1996. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  11. ^ a b c Plaskin, Glenn, “A Composer Who Backed into the Business,” NY Times, January 10, 1982
  12. ^ Koskoff, Ellen, Music Cultures in the United States: An Introduction, Routledge, 2004, p320
  13. ^ Walker, George (2009) Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Scarecrow Press, p. 105
  14. ^ Butterworth, Neil, Dictionary of American Classical Composers, Routledge 2004, p. 483
  15. ^ Siberz, Heidi. "George Theophilus Walker: February's Contemporary Composer". Indiana Public Media. Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  16. ^ "High Quality Classical Music Streaming | Hi-Res and CD Quality Online Streaming Subscription at ClassicsOnline". Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  17. ^ An Online Reference Guide to African American History (2011)
  18. ^ "George Walker: Prominent Composer & Washingtonian Grew Up on Sherman Avenue". Park View, D.C. December 24, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  19. ^ "Historical List of American Music Center Award Recipients". May 7, 2003. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  20. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Current Members". Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  21. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Awards Search". Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  22. ^ "Commencement 2012 :: University of Rochester". Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  23. ^ George Walker. "Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, By George Walker, 9780810869400 | Rowman & Littlefield". Retrieved October 1, 2016. 

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