George Walker (composer)

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George Walker
George Walker (holding the score) going over his Address for Orchestra with Benjamin Steinberg of the Symphony of the New World, 1968
George Walker (holding the score) going over his Address for Orchestra with Benjamin Steinberg of the Symphony of the New World, 1968
Background information
Birth nameGeorge Theophilus Walker
Born(1922-06-27)June 27, 1922
Washington, D.C., U.S.
DiedAugust 23, 2018(2018-08-23) (aged 96)
Montclair, New Jersey, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, composer, arranger

George Theophilus Walker (June 27, 1922 – August 23, 2018) was an American composer, pianist, and organist,[1] who was the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.[2] He received the Pulitzer for his work Lilacs in 1996.[3]

Walker was married to pianist and scholar Helen Walker-Hill (May 26, 1936 – August 8, 2013) between 1960 and 1975.[citation needed] Walker was the father of two sons, violinist and composer Gregory T.S. Walker[4] and playwright Ian Walker.

Early life[edit]

George Theophilus Walker was born in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 1922. His father emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica[5] to the United States, and became a physician after graduating from Temple University School of Medicine.[6] His mother, Rosa King, supervised his first piano lessons when he was five years old. His first teacher was Miss Mary L. Henry. Mrs. Lillian Mitchell Allen, his second piano teacher, held a doctorate in music education.[7] While attending Dunbar High School, George Walker was also a student at Howard University, which hosted his first public recital at the age of 14 in the university's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.[8][9]

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.[10] Walker graduated from the Curtis Institute with Artist Diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, becoming one of the first black graduates of the music school.[11]


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 there.[12] 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' Piano Concerto No. 2 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.[13] In 1954, he toured seven European countries, playing in the major cities of Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Amsterdam, Frankfurt am Main, Lausanne, Berne, Milan and London.[14]

Upon returning to the United States, he taught at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, for one year before entering the Doctor of Musical Arts degree program at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music in 1955.[15] In 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from that institution as well as the recipient of a second Artist Diploma in piano.[16]

Walker was awarded both a Fulbright Fellowship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1957. 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.[17]

Walker's academic career continued in 1960 with faculty appointments to the Dalcroze School of Music, the New School for Social Research,[18] where he introduced a course in aesthetics; Smith College (1961–68), where he became the first tenured black faculty member, the University of Colorado Boulder (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 gave master classes in numerous institutions, including the Curtis Institute of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the University of Colorado Boulder, Columbia University, Wayne State University, Wellesley College, Temple University, Washington University in St. Louis, Williams College and Montclair State University.[19]

In 1946, Walker composed his String Quartet no. 1. A string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of that work received its world premiere in a radio broadcast that was conducted by pianist Seymour Lipkin. Originally titled "Lament", Walker later changed the title to Lyric for Strings.[20] It has been one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by a living American composer.[21] His subsequent body of work included over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus.[22]


As a composer, Walker's music has been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles due to his exposure to the music of Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, jazz, folk songs, and church hymns.[23] Unwilling to conform to a specific style, Walker drew from his diverse knowledge of previous music to create something which he could call his own.[24] While a work such as Spatials for Piano uses twelve-tone serial techniques,[25] Walker would also write in the style of pop music such as in his song Leaving.[26] According to Mickey Terry, traces of old black spirituals can also be found in his second Sonata for violin and piano.[23] D. Maxine Sims has stated that Walker's piano technique is also reflected in his works, such as his Piano Sonata No. 2. This sonata contains changing meters, syncopation, and bitonal writing which all present great challenges for a performer to overcome.[27]

Awards and recognition[edit]

In 1996, Walker became the first black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work, Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry proclaimed June 17, 1997, as "George Walker Day" in the nation's capital.[28]

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".[29] He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999.[30] The following year, George Walker was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.[citation needed]

Over the next several years, he received 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 was the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships,[15] two Rockefeller Fellowships,[15] a Fromm Foundation commission, two Koussevitsky Awards, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award,[31] 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).[32]

His autobiography, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, was released in 2009 by Scarecrow Press.[33]

Walker died on August 23, 2018, in Montclair, New Jersey, at the age of 96.[34]

Major compositions[edit]

Walker's oeuvre includes the following works:[citation needed]

  • 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 Trombone and Orchestra (1957)
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • 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 commission)
  • Hoopla: A Touch of Glee
  • Icarus In Orbit
  • In Praise of Folly
  • Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra
  • Lyric for Strings
  • Mass for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra (National Endowment for the Arts commission)
  • Modus (Cygnus Ensemble commission)
  • Movements for Cello and Orchestra
  • 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
  • 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
  • Sinfonia No. 5 "Visions" (two versions, one with voices and one without)
  • 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
  • Windset for Woodwind Quintet


  1. ^ Terry, Mickey (Autumn 2000). "An Interview with George Walker". The Musical Quarterly. 84: 377. JSTOR 742584.
  2. ^ "George Walker: the great American composer you've never heard of". The Guardian. August 27, 2015. Retrieved August 25, 2018.
  3. ^ De Lerma, Dominique-Rene. "African Heritage Symphonic Series". Liner note essay. Cedille Records CDR061.
  4. ^ Walker, George (2009), Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Scarecrow Press, ISBN 978-0810869400, p. 153.
  5. ^ "Walker, George Theophilus (1922– ) – The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  6. ^ Walker (2009), Reminiscences, p. 2.
  7. ^ Walker (2009), Reminiscences, p. 13.
  8. ^ WETA. "George Walker, Trailblazing American Composer, Dies at 96". WETA. Retrieved August 30, 2018.
  9. ^ Flandreau, Suzanne (June 2010). "Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist by George Walker". Notes. 66: 758. doi:10.1353/not.0.0336. JSTOR 40856228.
  10. ^ "The Pulitzer Prizes". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  11. ^ "Curtis Institute of Music : Timeline". October 17, 1999. Archived from the original on April 19, 2010. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Mickey Thomas Terry, Ingrid Monson and George Walker, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Autumn 2000), pp. 372–88.
  14. ^ "Composer George Walker | PBS NewsHour". PBS. April 10, 1996. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Plaskin, Glenn, "A Composer Who Backed into the Business", The New York Times, January 10, 1982.
  16. ^ Koskoff, Ellen, Music Cultures in the United States: An Introduction, Routledge, 2004, p. 320.
  17. ^ Walker (2009), Reminiscences, p. 105.
  18. ^ Butterworth, Neil, Dictionary of American Classical Composers, Routledge 2004, p. 483
  19. ^ Siberz, Heidi. "George Theophilus Walker: February's Contemporary Composer". Indiana Public Media. Retrieved October 30, 2016.
  20. ^ "George Walker: Concise and Precise". Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  21. ^ "High Quality Classical Music Streaming | Hi-Res and CD Quality Online Streaming Subscription at ClassicsOnline". Archived from the original on October 20, 2014. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  22. ^ An Online Reference Guide to African American History (2011).
  23. ^ a b Terry, Mickey (Autumn 2000). "An Interview with George Walker". The Musical Quarterly. 84: 381. JSTOR 742584.
  24. ^ Edwards, Amber (1991). "George Walker". Retrieved November 6, 2018 – via Vimeo.
  25. ^ Flandreau, Suzanne (June 2010). "Review of: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist by George Walker". Notes. 66: 759. JSTOR 40856228.
  26. ^ Terry, Mickey (Autumn 2000). "An Interview with George Walker". The Musical Quarterly. 84: 383. JSTOR 742584.
  27. ^ Sims, D. (Spring 1976). "An Analysis and Comparison of Piano Sonatas by George Walker and Howard Swanson". The Black Perspective in Music. 4: 70–81. JSTOR 1214404.
  28. ^ "George Walker: Prominent Composer & Washingtonian Grew Up on Sherman Avenue". Park View, D.C. December 24, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  29. ^ "Historical List of American Music Center Award Recipients". May 7, 2003. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  30. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters – Current Members". Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved October 30, 2016.
  31. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters – Awards Search". Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  32. ^ "Commencement 2012 :: University of Rochester". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  33. ^ George Walker. "Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, By George Walker, 9780810869400". Rowman & Littlefield. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  34. ^ "George Walker, Trailblazing American Composer, Dies At 96", NPR.

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