Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, pianist and educator George Walker has died at the age of 96. Walker’s death was first reported to NPR by one of his family members, Karen Schaefer. Gregory Walker, the composer’s son, said his father died Thursday of complications from kidney disease at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, New Jersey.
Walker’s music was firmly rooted in the modern classical tradition, but also drew inspiration from African-American spirituals and jazz. His nearly 100 compositions are very varied, ranging from symphonic works and finely orchestrated concertos to intimate songs and solo piano pieces.
“His music is always characterized by a great sense of dignity, that’s how he always behaved,” says composer Jeffrey Mumford, who, as a music professor at Lorain County Community College in the Ohio, uses examples of Walker’s music in his lessons. “His style has evolved over the years; his earlier works, some written while still a student, embodied impressive clarity and elegance.”
Walker was a pioneer of “firsts”, and not just because of the Pulitzer. In 1945 alone, he was the first African-American pianist to give a recital at Town Hall in New York, the first black instrumentalist to perform solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The following year Walker wrote his first string quartet. In 1990, he revised the second movement into a new piece, Lyrics for strings, which has become his most performed work.
In 1996, Walker broke new ground again by becoming the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Lilac for voice and orchestra, to a text by Walt Whitman, is a moving meditation on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
George Theophilus Walker was born on June 27, 1922 in Washington, DC, to a West Indian father and mother who started him with piano lessons at the age of five. At age 14, Walker gave his first public recital at Howard University in Washington. In 1937, he entered Oberlin College in Ohio on a scholarship and graduated at age 18. He then enrolled at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Samuel Barber, graduating in 1945. in the late 1950s, he went to Paris to study for two years with the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. (His other students ranged from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones.)
Mumford likes to recall a story about Walker’s Parisian years with Boulanger. “She was so impressed with her musicality that she gave up the usual demands she placed on students,” Mumford said. “He could bring anything he wanted to show her to class.
Walker’s reputation as a composer of works for orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Boston Symphony slowly grew, but Mumford says Walker’s fame has been hard-earned.
“We have a lot of work to do in programming orchestras of composers of color,” says Mumford. “Walker deserved a lot more performances than he’s received so far. It’s sad to say that even the work that won him the Pulitzer hasn’t honored the concert hall enough.”
Walker is often identified as an “African-American” composer rather than just an American composer. In a 1987 interview with broadcaster Bruce Duffie, Walker said there are two sides to this label.
“I have benefited from being a black composer in the sense that when there are symposia on the music of black composers, I would get performances from orchestras that otherwise would not have done the works,” said Walker. “The other aspect, of course, is that if I wasn’t black I would have had a much wider spread of my music and more performances.”
Mark Clague, who wrote the article on George Walker for the International Dictionary of Black Composers, emphasizes elements of race and politics in Walker’s compositions.
“He constructs his music so that the unconscious listener cannot distinguish it from that of his ‘canonized’ white contemporaries,” writes Clague, citing influences from Stravinsky, Debussy and the serialist school of composers. “He is frequently inspired by black musical idioms, such as spirituals, blues patterns, and jazz tropes. Walker’s music, however, is not a collage of modern styles, or a pastiche, but a his own distinct voice. ”
In 2009, Walker told NPR All things Considered that as a composer, from the start, he knew he had to become an individual. “I had to find my own path,” he said. “A way to do something different, something that I would be happy with.”
Walker has had a long and distinguished academic career. He has held teaching positions at the New School in New York, Rutgers University in New Jersey (where he chaired the music department), University of Colorado, Peabody Institute in Maryland, at the University of Delaware and Smith College, where he became the first full faculty member. Walker has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions, including Oberlin and Spelman Colleges. In 1997, the mayor of Washington DC, Marion Barry, declared June 17 George Walker Day.
Walker is survived by two sons: Ian Walker, a playwright, and Gregory TS Walker, violinist and former concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra in Colorado, who said his father was still active, working on commissions at the time of his dead.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a more specific cause of George Walker’s death.