George Walker (267147)

George Walker had always thought of himself as a pianist, not a composer. Born in Washington, D.C., he was the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and in 1945 made his professional debut in a solo recital at New York’s Town Hall, reports the Washington Post. According to Walker, it was the first time a Black instrumentalist had performed at the venue — a milestone that he replicated two weeks later, when he became the first Black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “It was then,” he later told the New York Times, “I discovered the stigma of race.” Last week on Aug. 23, the 96-year-old – the first African American to win a Pulitzer for music – died at a hospital in New Jersey. Walker found limited success as a concert pianist, despite early critical acclaim and support from leading pianists such as Rudolf Serkin, his instructor at Curtis. He said he faced racial discrimination — “a pressure-resistant stone wall” — from managers, talent agencies and orchestras who passed over him for white performers. At the same time, he suffered agonizing stomach pain, ulcer attacks that left him hospitalized for as long as a month. Yet Walker went on to establish himself as a revered composer, a path-breaking music teacher and a powerful critic of racial discrimination in classical music. In 1996, he became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his song cycle “Lilacs,” set to stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” “There is wonderful music in this cycle, which is profoundly responsive to the images in the text — you can hear the sway of lilacs in the rhythm, smell their fragrance in the harmony,” wrote Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer, after the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in 1996. A former chairman of the music department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Walker composed dozens of works for orchestras and chamber groups, including sonatas, concertos, sinfonias, string quartets and a Mass. One of his best-known works was also his earliest: “Lyrics for Strings,” which was written in 1946 as the second movement of his first string quartet. The piece was inspired by the death of his grandmother, a former slave. Walker said that because he was Black, he was often pigeonholed as loving jazz music and working in a tradition of African American spirituals. “I never listened to jazz until I went to college,” he wrote in a 1991 article for the Times. “Imagine my puzzlement when Rudolf Serkin, my piano teacher, instructed me to play an accompanimental passage in Beethoven’s Opus 101 Sonata ‘like jazz.’ ” “He took these simple, elemental melodies and abstracted them so that only someone who knows what to listen for can perceive they’re buried in the fabric of the music,” said his son Gregory Walker, a violinist and former concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra in Colorado. “You could think of that as a metaphor for his life. There he is working in this white, classical European idiom and mastering it. But he has a grandmother who was a slave, and is part of [African American] culture.”