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George Walker, first African American composer to win Pulitzer Prize, dies at 96

Pianist and composer George Walker in 1996, after he became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.
Pianist and composer George Walker in 1996, after he became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. (Mike Derer/AP)
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George Walker had always thought of himself as a pianist, not a composer. Born in Washington, 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.

By his telling, 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.”

Dr. Walker, who died Aug. 23 at 96, at a hospital in Montclair, N.J., 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 Dr. Walker went on to establish himself as a revered composer, a pathbreaking 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, Dr. 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: “Lyric 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.

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Dr. 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.’ ”

With mixed success, he sought to be viewed simply as a pianist-composer, without a racial label attached. When he did begin alluding to jazz standards and spirituals in his work — after attending a 1968 music symposium in Atlanta, where he said he met another black orchestral composer for the first time — he buried the references in atonal pieces that utilized complex time signatures and nontraditional chord progressions.

“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.”

In an email, George E. Lewis, a Columbia University professor of American music, wrote that Dr. Walker’s music “was all about freedom. His compositions adhered to no school, and did not develop from a singular, iconic style. Each work proceeded from its own premises and found its own way.”

That freedom “to draw from any source,” he added, “was critical to the emergence of a later generation of African American composers,” including Alvin Singleton, Anthony Davis, Courtney Bryan and Muhal Richard Abrams.

In life’s coda, master composer George Walker has a symphony in mind

George Theophilus Walker was born in Washington on June 27, 1922. His father was a physician who emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica, and saw patients at the family home; his mother worked for what was then the Government Printing Office. Neither could play the piano, but after they bought one for the parlor, their 5-year-old son began pounding on the keys.

“Enough is enough,” Dr. Walker recalled his mother saying. “I’m going to find a teacher for you.” In time, Dr. Walker accompanied her as she sang spirituals and folk songs at home in the evenings, sometimes playing 50 hymns in one night. His younger sister, Frances Walker-Slocum, also became a pianist and was the first black woman to receive tenure at Oberlin College. She died in June.

A precocious student, he graduated from Dunbar High School at 14 and then from Oberlin College in Ohio at 18. He graduated from Curtis in 1945, and in 1956 became the first African American to receive a doctorate from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.

By then, he had begun to immerse himself in composing, and traveled to Paris to study under Nadia Boulanger, who counted Aaron Copland as a former pupil. He began his own teaching career in 1960, and taught at the New School for Social Research in New York and at Smith College in Massachusetts, where he was the first black faculty member to receive tenure, before joining Rutgers, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement in 1992.

His marriage to Helen Siemens ended in divorce. In addition to his son Gregory Walker of Louisville, Colo., who said Dr. Walker was suffering from a kidney ailment, survivors include his son Ian Walker, a playwright in Oakland, Calif.; and three grandsons.

Dr. Walker’s orchestral works were performed by groups including the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, and in the aftermath of the Pulitzer, he seemed on the verge of a popular revival. He released piano recordings on Albany Records, and in 1997, Mayor Marion Barry even proclaimed a George Walker Day in the District.

“I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner,” he told The Washington Post in 2015. “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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly described Dr. Walker as the first faculty member to receive tenure at Smith College. He was the first black faculty member to receive that distinction. The story has been revised.

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