George Walker, first African-American awarded a Pulitzer for music, dies at 96
On the first evening of February 1996, the audience in Symphony Hall became the first in the world to hear George Walker’s song cycle “Lilacs.”
After listening to soprano Faye Robinson perform the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Globe critic Richard Dyer noted in a review that the composition’s original title, “Melismas,” describes singing several notes for a single syllable. Dyer said that was “a useful description of Walker’s vocal writing, which is not bound by the single-syllable-per-note declamation that is the enemy of soaring vocalism.”
Each of the piece’s four sections was set to a stanza of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a Walt Whitman poem.
“There is wonderful music in this cycle, which is profoundly responsive to the images of the text — you can hear the sway of lilacs in the rhythm, smell their fragrance in the harmony,” Dyer wrote, adding that Dr. Walker “is at his best when he creates long, lyrical phrases where the voice can spring free in ecstatic outpouring, and there were many of them throughout the cycle.”
Little more than two months later, Dr. Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Lilacs,” becoming the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer for music. He was 96 when he died last Thursday in Montclair, N.J.
The BSO had commissioned Dr. Walker’s award-winning composition as part of a program celebrating the life and work of Roland Hayes, an African-American lyric tenor and composer who settled in Boston.
“I am glad for George Walker and also happy for Faye Robinson and Roland Hayes,” Seiji Ozawa, who conducted the BSO’s world premiere of the composition, told the Globe after the Pulitzer was announced. “This is a nice surprise. ‘Lilacs’ is like chamber music for a very full orchestra, with every note very carefully chosen and a very sensitive vocal and orchestral line.”
The Pulitzer committee called Dr. Walker’s piece a “passionate, and very American, musical composition” with “a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality.”
After he was awarded the Pulitzer, Dr. Walker told USA Today that “it’s always nice to be known as the first doing anything, but what’s more important is the recognition that this work has quality.”
Nearly five years passed before “Lilacs” was recorded. Robinson was again the soloist, performing this time with the student orchestra at Arizona State University.
“Hearing the piece again, and repeatedly, has been a treat. ‘Lilacs’ is a work of great surface beauty and immediacy of appeal, but it is also a piece that does not yield all its secrets on first hearing,” Dyer wrote in a 2001 Globe review of the recording.
“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,” Dyer added.
A music professor for much of his career, Dr. Walker composed more than 90 works, which were performed by orchestras throughout the United States and abroad. He said, however, 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.
“The earliest generation of black classical composers has been succeeded by a larger group of talented craftsmen,” he wrote in a 1991 essay for 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.”
He added that “these composers are left to languish.”
George Theophilus Walker was born June 27, 1922, in Washington, D.C. His father, 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 once told the Times, “and those sessions became one of the most important aspects of our home life.”
A gifted student, he 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 at first he studied under pianist Rudolf Serkin.
Dr. Walker also worked with the violinist and composer Rosario Scalero and found a new avenue for his 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.”
Upon graduating in 1945, Dr. Walker remained 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. “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.”
In 1954 he embarked on a European tour “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, and then entered the doctoral program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. In 1956, he became its first black recipient of a doctoral degree.
Dr. Walker taught at Smith College from 1961 to 1968 and at Rutgers University at Newark from 1969 to 1992. 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 composed for small groups and for orchestra, writing concertos and sonatas, as well as pieces such as “Poem for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble” and “Five Fancies for Clarinet and Piano Four Hands.”
Dr. Walker’s marriage to Helen Siemens ended in divorce. He leaves two sons, Gregory, a musician and college professor, and Ian, a playwright, and three grandsons.
Gregory told the Times that his father had other passions.
“From the time of his youth,” he wrote in an e-mail, “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.”
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.