Photographer Frank Schramm had just moved to Montclair, N.J., when he heard one of Walker’s pieces playing on the local public radio station. He sent Walker an e-mail, not having any idea where he lived. Turns out, they were in the same town. Walker dropped Schramm a tape. The photographer began taking pictures. That was 2004. Schramm, who has continued photographing the composer, provided the Washington Post with these images.
First piano lesson: 1927
First recital, Town Hall, New York City: 1945
First black tenured faculty member, Smith College: 1961
First Pulitzer Prize for African-American in composition: 1996.
There are no deadlines. There is nothing to prove. George Walker, 93, writes music because he wants to. “I don’t know what relaxation is,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer admits. Walker also talks about his many chores as he sits in his living room in Montclair. Two high-end (Polymer) floor speakers stand a few feet away. The Steinway is in the next room. So are the sheets of music he’s working on and a stack of CDs. “I do everything. I do my own cooking. I do my laundry. I do my cleaning.” Oh, and that symphony. Walker has been working on it for four months. The D.C. native – he grew up in the northwest section of the city - isn’t sure who will perform it. First, Walker has to finish it. Why keep working? “I want more people to hear my work,” he says. “I want people to get acquainted with my music.”
He works most days, sitting at the piano. “I’m not like Brahms getting up at 5 o’clock and having a cup of coffee. But I’m thinking all the time about possibilities. About what I can use. And I spend very little time actually writing because I don’t like to revise. If I wrote three notes one day, the next day I might erase two and leave one. It’s very intensive, especially now. I’ve come to the point where I can find something and say, ‘Aha, I’ve already done that.’
“There’s always a possibility of finding something. It’s basically the choice that one makes. The pitch. The rhythm. It also has to do with the harmony. Trying to figure out why one particular chord sounds right and what note should change.”
Miss Mary L. Henry was his first piano teacher. Walker started taking lessons at the age of 5. “The piano was in the parlor. It was an upright. Most everybody had a piano. It was simply a matter of finding a teacher to teach. She came in and once a week, I would have a lesson. When you’re a kid you have to be told that — to practice. The famous story about Stravinsky when he was composing ‘The Rite of Spring’ in the apartment and there was a kid outside shouting to him — ‘That’s wrong’ — and Stravinsky was saying, ‘No, this is right, this is right, son.’ Same thing happened to me. When I first started out, my mother would be in the kitchen and I’d be fumbling around on the piano and she would say, ‘That’s not right.’ She said, ‘Don’t do it again.’ ”
On Sherman Avenue
Walker’s father was a Jamaican immigrant who graduated from medical school at Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1918. His mother worked in the Government Printing Office after graduating from high school. “Our household was extremely busy because my father had his office downstairs. The street, Sherman Avenue, was a lovely street at the time with arching trees. That’s one of the major changes that I really feel strongly was a result of the effort to focus on business by widening the street. To allow buses to go without ever stopping. Straight down this whole avenue.”
He is a tough sell. Walker has reservations about many of today’s composers. “If you don’t have a sense of formal design, if you don’t have any real sense of harmonic coordination, if you don’t even have a sense that music has to breathe, it’s going to be uncoordinated. Almost in every period you have composers who are extremely well-trained. We’re in a period where technique is not an option. It’s not taught as an option. The fact of the matter is that if one’s to go back to composers who wanted to change things and do something different and yet managed somehow to retain some of the aspects of composition that the other masters had completely absorbed. You have to go back to Stravinsky, Hindemith. I have issues with them, but they’re not the same issues that I would find with the so-called contemporary composers of the late 20th century. Elliott Carter, it was kind of pathetic what he was doing after 80 or 90 years.”
Walker’s winning piece, “Lilacs for voice and orchestra,” used the words of Walt Whitman and was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1996.
How did the Pulitzer change his life? “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-
winner. But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. My publisher didn’t have sense enough to push. It materialized in nothing.”
On being black
“It’s the first thing that comes to most people’s mind. That if you’re in music, you must play jazz. You don’t play jazz? I can’t believe it. It’s a stereotyping that is sort of endemic. It doesn’t bother me. I realize and I recognize this is how people think. If I were to be deterred by that, as some black performers had been — I’ve heard any number of people who have said, ‘When I started to take piano lessons, my teacher told me, “You ought to play jazz.” ’ It’s the implication there that this is something that comes more naturally to you. I think the world of classical music is really complex in the sense that you never quite know why things don’t go your way all the time. Management had arranged for me to have an audition with someone from [the Ravinia Festival]. So I played for him. He said, ‘Well, maybe we can arrange for you to play “Rhapsody In Blue.” ’ ”
When they play it right
“I remember when I worked on ‘Dialogue for Cello and Orchestra’ with the Cleveland Orchestra. And I went to the first rehearsal and the orchestra played so wonderful I was almost overwhelmed. Sometimes, I can’t think of another occasion in which I was so moved. It sounded even better than I could have anticipated. I don’t remember the feeling. I simply remember there was a sense of amazement that I had written this piece. It’s not like anything else you’ve ever heard. And for them to have played it in a way that I really could not find anything to object to.”