George Walker, the most recognized African-American classical composer of his generation, died at the age of 96 on August 23. With a list of over 100 compositions, over 80 commissions, a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for Lilac, and teaching positions at The New School, Rutgers University, University of Colorado, Peabody Institute, Smith College, and University of Delaware, Walker’s career has been a series of firsts. and climbed mountains which testify to an extraordinary musical spirit, meticulous know-how and, of course, a strong will.
Walker was born in 1922 in Washington DC, started playing the piano at the age of five, and made his recital debut at age 14 at Howard University. He was the first black pianist to give a recital at Carnegie Hall, in 1945, and received a DMA degree from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, in 1955, the first black recipient of a doctorate. of this institution. He then received a Fulbright Fellowship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study composition with Nadia Boulanger as a private student at the American Academy in Paris.
Walker was blocked for a long time as a songwriter because of racism and prejudice. He was remarkably philosophical about those years in interviews for the following decades. Concert directors would not accept a black pianist, and he could not get performances or even publication for most of his works. In the 1970s, in the wake of the black civil rights movement, his music began to be heard more often. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant for the creation of its Piano Concerto, first performed by the Minnesota Orchestra at the 1975 Black Music Symposium in Minneapolis. It was a work presented at subsequent symposia in Detroit (1976) and New York (1977). It has now been recorded by SONY with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Walker’s career has gradually accelerated, which he generously suggested as an effect of the world catching up with him. Perhaps that was true, a little, in terms of accepting a black composer, but by the time it happened, his mid-century modernism style was disappearing from concert halls. Although his works have been performed by most American orchestras, his music is performed even less often than it should be. Honored with numerous awards, from Guggenheim Fellowships to American Academy of Arts and Letters membership, he’s hard to find in concert programs.
Walker’s musical style winks and draws inspiration from blues, gospel, and other black musical traditions, but the techniques are all classic and common to a number of American tonal composers of his day, deployed from limpid manner with a lot of room for a melody to breathe and a conciseness which shows the lasting influence of Boulanger. There are, as with the best composers, no lost notes. It might not sound new, but it’s great music.