George Walker: The first black composer to win Pulitzer Prize for music

January 08, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

January 08, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

George Walker in 2010 at his home in Montclair, N.J - Pic Credit: Frank Schramm

In 1996, George Walker, broke barriers to become the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Dr. Walker was reportedly a music professor at several institutions and composed over 90 works. His pieces were performed by orchestras all over the United States and abroad.

As a black pianist, he felt racially discriminated against even in music so he wrote an article titled “Make Room for Black Classical Music” in 1991 in the New York Times.

“The earliest generation of black classical composers has been succeeded by a larger group of talented craftsmen. Their styles are diverse, reflecting differences in temperament, compositional technique, and instrumental signatures.

“Their common denominator is not the use of black idioms but a fascination with sound and color, with intensities and the fabric of construction. Pretentiousness and bombast are conspicuously absent. And these composers are left to languish,” read parts of his article.

He talked about the apparent neglect of the contributions of black classical composers in music-history texts written by white musicologists and said that there “should be hope for the wider dissemination of music by black composers”

Due to the barriers he faced as a young pianist he switched gears to compose music.

Mr. Walker, at home in 2015, faced barriers as a young pianist because of his race and turned instead to composing.
Mr. Walker at home in 2015 – Pic Credit: Frank Schramm

When he received the Pulitzer prize, Dr. Walker told USA Today that “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.”

Born on June 27, 1922, in Washington to a physician father also named George, Walker began taking piano lessons at age five when his mother, Rosa King Walker encouraged him to.

He had no interest whatsoever in music. “I had no particular interest in the piano or in music but in our household, when you were told to do something, you did it,” he said in 2012 when speaking on the PBS series State of the Arts.

According to Times, apparently his mother liked to sing and every Sunday he accompanied her from a book of folk songs and those sessions became one of the most important aspects of their home life.

Walker graduated from high school at 14 and received a piano scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, graduating in 1941. In the years that ensued, precisely in 1945, he was the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York’s Town Hall.

He was also the first black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

His styles of music have evolved over the years as he struggled to break out as a black pianist. His first string quartet which he later revised in 1990 titled “Lyric for Strings” became his often-performed work.

In 2008, Fanfare magazine said, “The music of George Walker is accessible, rhythmically defined, and ultimately life-enhancing and in its Jan/Feb 2015 edition, it described George Walker as “one of the greatest composers of our time”.

It wasn’t just Walker and his mom who loved music, his younger sister, Frances Walker-Slocum was a pianist and Oberlin College professor.

Walker died aged 96 in Montclair, N.J. from a kidney ailment, according to his son Gregory Walker.

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