When George Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work in 1996, famed conductor Zubin Mehta wrote in the Star Ledger, “this composer has finally gotten the recognition he deserves.” With an active career as a pianist and composer, Walker has made incredible contributions to the classical music world.
George Walker: ‘Life Enhancing’ American Master
George Theophilus Walker is an African American composer who has made immense contributions to contemporary classical music. He is known for writing compelling works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, voice, and piano. Fanfare Magazine states “the music of George Walker is accessible, rhythmically defined, and ultimately life-enhancing.” The quality of his music earned him a Pulitzer Prize in Music for his piece Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, making him the first African American to receive this award for music.
Born on June 27, 1922, Walker grew up in Washington, D.C. and began studying piano at age 5. He had his first public piano recital at age 14 and graduated from Oberlin College at age 18. He went on to earn Artist Diplomas in piano and composition from Curtis Institute of Music, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Walker has had an incredibly active career as a performer, composer, and educator. His body of work includes over 90 compositions for various instruments and has been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and countless others.
Walker’s Pulitzer Prize -winning piece, Lilacs, is scored for soprano and orchestra. It is a musical setting of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which is an elegy on the death of President Abraham Lincoln. The piece was premiered by the Boston Symphony on February 1, 1996. Walker’s exquisite setting of the text captures the emotion of the poem and resonates with expressive orchestral writing. It is at times haunting, and at times purely beautiful. According to the Boston Globe, the piece is “a work of great surface beauty and immediacy of appeal. The vocal line soars and spirals in melismas of ardent grief; the music captures the sway and fragrance of lilacs as well as the freedom of a bird’s flight.”
Lilacs is just one example of George Walker’s excellent work as a composer. With many awards and accolades, including induction into the Classical Music Hall of Fame, it is self-evident that his vast array of compositions expresses a range of captivating emotions. In addition to recordings of his music, there are several recordings of Walker performing piano works by Bach, Chopin, Poulenc, Liszt, Mozart, and many more composers of the classic piano repertoire. His multi-faceted career as a performer and composer has created a wealth of compelling works, which will be cherished for many more years to come.
To view Mr. Walker’s discography, head over to his website.
All photographs by Frank Schramm. We would like to thank Frank Schramm, Mr. Walker, and Africlassical for their assistance in getting the images for this post. Subscribe to the Africlassical blog here.