In Memoriam: George Walker

Photo courtesy: Eastman School of Music

On August 23, 2018, George Walker — Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, accomplished pianist, and distinguished educator — passed away at age 96.

Walker was born in 1922 in Washington, DC to a non-musical family; however, his mother decided that he would begin piano lessons at age 5. “I had no particular interest in the piano or in music,” Walker noted in a 2012 PBS “State of the Arts” profile, “but in our household, when you were told to do something, you did it.” After graduating from high school at age 14, he attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio on a piano scholarship and graduated in 1941.

Walker continued his studies in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute of Music. He studied with pianist Rudolf Serkin and pursued composition classes with Rosario Scalero. In 1945, Walker was among the first African-American students to graduate from Curtis. Later that same year, after having won the Philadelphia Orchestra’s student competition, Walker became the orchestra’s first African-American soloist in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. That same year, he made his New York concert debut at Town Hall and programmed one of his own works.

George Walker as a young pianist. Photo courtesy: George Walker Archives

Walker’s post-graduate work continued in Rochester, NY at the Eastman School of Music. In 1956, he became the first African-American to receive a doctoral degree from the school. Walker subsequently became a Fulbright fellow, and studied with famed 20th-century pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. In 1996, another African-American “first” arrived when Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work Lilacs. Written for voice and orchestra, Lilacs is a setting of verses from Walt Whitman’s lament for Abraham Lincoln. It was premiered by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. The Pulitzer Prize committee called it “[a] passionate, and very American, musical composition” with “a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality.” Walker’s prolific catalogue includes over 90 works featuring pieces for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus.

Walker’s many honors include: fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations; Koussevitsky Awards; an NEA grant, and a Fromm Foundation commission. He was elected into membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. Walker also enjoyed a long, honored career as an educator, beginning with a teaching post at Dillard University in New Orleans. He subsequently taught at the Peabody Institute, the New School for Social Research (New York City), Smith College, University of Colorado, University of Delaware, and at Rutgers University where he served as Chairman of the Music Department. Albany Records has released a historical collection of Walker’s performances (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Haydn, Lizst, Poulenc, and Schumann) along with numerous titles of Walker’s own orchestral and chamber music as part of its Great American Works series.

To read more about George Walker’s life, visit the New York Times, the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Washington Post. To learn more details about the composer and his music, go to