George Walker Slept Here: Parlor piano inspired career


Composer George Walker, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, grew up in this rowhouse on Sherman Avenue in Northwest Washington, in what is now considered Columbia Heights. (Nathaniel Grann/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 20, 2012

While @Work Advice is dark for the holidays (keep letters coming!), we’ll tell you about where some prominent Washingtonians call, or called, home.

Although neither of George Walker’s music-loving parents could play the instrument, they purchased a piano for the parlor of their home, this typical D.C. rowhouse on Sherman Avenue in Northwest Washington, in what is now considered Columbia Heights. Five-year-old George so delighted in banging on the keys that “Mother said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to find a teacher for you,’ ” Walker recalled.

It was a life-shaping decision: Walker, now 90, went on to become the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

The piano in the parlor continued to play a role in Walker’s musical development. On Sunday evenings, he would perform from his mother’s songbooks of folk and spiritual arrangements — some of which later found their way into his compositions.

“It was a way of passing the time before one went to bed,” he said. “My mother might be in the kitchen. My father might be in his office. They’d hear me playing, and they’d gravitate to the parlor and stand around and hum along with me. I would sometimes play 50 hymns in one evening.”


A 1996 photograph of George Walker. “It was a real neighborhood,” he says of his childhood home in the District. “People knew each other.” (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

His father, a physician, saw patients in the lower level of the house.
George, his parents, younger sister, grandmother and uncle shared the two other floors. “It was a very small house for the size of our family,” he said.

If he wasn’t playing the piano, Walker played with the neighborhood children in his back yard or in the vacant lot at the end of the street or at the elementary school nearby.

“It was a real neighborhood,” he said. “People knew each other.”

After graduating from Dunbar High School at age 14, Walker, who now lives in Montclair, N.J., attended Oberlin College, and the Curtis and Eastman schools of music. He went on to perform, teach and, of course, compose.

He won the Pulitzer in 1996 for “Lilacs,” a work for voice and orchestra, based on a Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walker believes his familiarity with Pennsylvania Avenue, where the funeral procession took place, gave him an advantage in setting the poem to music.

Walker’s career took him across the country and around the world, but he considered the rowhouse on Sherman Avenue home until his father died in 1954.

Although he doesn’t visit Washington often, he will be here Jan. 14 to hear the National Symphony Orchestra perform his Sinfonia No. 4 at Howard University — 76 years after his first recital there.

Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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