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George Walker, Barrier-Breaking Composer, Is Dead at 96
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George Walker, Barrier-Breaking Composer, Is Dead at 96

By Neil Genzlinger

Aug. 27, 2018

George Walker, a composer who broke barriers during a long and distinguished career, including, in 1996, becoming the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, died on Thursday in Montclair, N.J. He was 96.

His son Gregory Walker said the cause was a kidney ailment.

Dr. Walker, who was also a music professor at several institutions, composed more than 90 works, and his pieces were performed by orchestras all over the United States as well as abroad. But, especially early in his career, he often felt that his race had deprived him of opportunities. Though his works sometimes carried references to African-American spiritual music and jazz, they were not his main calling card, and he was wary of tokenism in his field.

“The earliest generation of black classical composers has been succeeded by a larger group of talented craftsmen,” he wrote in a 1991 essay in The New York Times. “Their styles are diverse, reflecting differences in temperament, compositional technique and instrumental signatures. Their common denominator is not a 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.”

The Pulitzer was at least some vindication.

“It’s always nice to be known as the first doing anything,” Dr. Walker told USA Today upon receiving the prize, “but what’s more important is the recognition that this work has quality.”

George Theophilus Walker was born on June 27, 1922, in Washington. His father, also named George, was a physician, and young George was nicknamed Doc by friends on the assumption that he would follow in his footsteps. It was at the urging of his mother, Rosa King Walker, that he began taking piano lessons at 5.

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

His mother liked to sing, and a ritual developed.

“Every Sunday I accompanied her from a book of folk songs,” Dr. Walker told The Times in 2012, “and those sessions became one of the most important aspects of our home life.”

(There was plenty of music in the household; his younger sister was the pianist and Oberlin College professor Frances Walker-Slocum. She died in June.)

A gifted student, young George graduated from high school at 14 and received a piano scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, graduating in 1941. He then enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he at first studied under the pianist Rudolf Serkin, though he was not a fan of his teaching technique.

“He never demonstrated, never once,” Dr. Walker told The Times in 1982. “In his favorite works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert his comments were occasionally insightful — especially as regards rhythmic relationships, dynamics. But in Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninoff he had practically nothing to say about tone color, rubato or pedaling.”

He began working with the violinist and composer Rosario Scalero, hoping to expand his theoretical training. He found a new avenue for his musical creativity.

“I discovered that composing came extremely easily to me,” he said. “I could manipulate musical materials within the rules very quickly and get the maximum result.”

But upon graduation in 1945, he was still focused on being a concert pianist. He made his New York recital debut at Town Hall at 23, playing a program that included one of his own compositions, “Three Pieces for Piano.”

That same year he became the first black pianist to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But his career did not take off.

“Those successes were meaningless, because without the sustained effect of follow-up concerts, my career had no momentum,” he told The Times. “And because I was black, I couldn’t get either major or minor dates.”

He signed with the National Concert Artists agency, but prospects remained slim.

“From the outset they explained that getting concerts for me — a black pianist playing classical music — would be an uphill battle,” he said. “ ‘We can’t sell you,’ they told me.”

And they couldn’t. White contemporaries from Curtis were getting 25 or 30 bookings a season, but he was getting only a handful. In 1954 he embarked on a European tour.

“I went to Europe and played in seven countries because I thought it would help get concerts here,” he told The Detroit Free Press in 2015. “It didn’t.”

When he returned, he taught for a year at Dillard University in New Orleans, then entered the doctoral program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In 1956 he became the school’s first black recipient of a doctoral degree.

Dr. Walker held teaching posts at a number of institutions, including Smith College (1961-6) and Rutgers University at Newark (1969-92), and once in academia he increasingly turned to composing. A breakthrough in his composing career, he said, came in 1968 when he was invited to participate in a symposium for black composers sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Being black had hindered my career as a pianist,” he said, “but here it actually helped me as a composer.”

He developed friendships with other black composers, began to draw occasional interest from programmers and grew more confident in his musical instincts. He composed for small groups and for orchestra, writing numerous concertos and sonatas as well as pieces like “Poem for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble” and “Five Fancies for Clarinet and Piano Four Hands.” Many works featured strings.

“I never played a string instrument, but somehow strings have always fascinated me,” he told Strings Magazine in 2017. “I can’t explain why that is.”

One of his most frequently played works — it was also one of the earliest in his composing career — was “Lyric for Strings (Lament),” written in 1946.

“The Lyric was written in memory of his grandmother,” Jed Gaylin, who conducted a performance of it by the Bay Atlantic Symphony in New Jersey in 2012, said by email. “It has an immediacy and melodic sweep, but also an intimacy that draws the listener in.” Sections of turbulence, upward-surging lines and resolving dissonances also mark the work.

There was lament as well in the piece that won him the Pulitzer Prize, “Lilacs.” Composed for voice and orchestra and first performed by the Boston Symphony, it is a setting of verses from Walt Whitman’s lament for Abraham Lincoln.

“Clearly, mourning becomes Dr. Walker,” The Times wrote in 1996.

The Pulitzer committee called it a “passionate, and very American, musical composition” with “a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality.”

In 1997 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra played the premiere of Dr. Walker’s “Pageant and Proclamation” for the opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. In 2012 the orchestra marked his 90th birthday with the premiere of another Walker work, Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands.”

Dr. Walker’s marriage to Helen Siemens ended in divorce in about 1970. In addition to his son Gregory, a musician and college professor, he is survived by another son, Ian, a playwright, and three grandsons. Dr. Walker lived in Montclair.

Mr. Gaylin called Dr. Walker “a passionate, sincere and brilliant musician.” Gregory Walker said his father also had other passions.

“From the time of his youth,” he said by email, “Dad was a competitive tennis player, an uncompromising audiophile with a living room full of futuristic stereo paraphernalia, and above all, a connoisseur of fine tomatoes.”
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