By Afro Staff
George Walker, a Black Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, pianist and educator, died Aug. 23 at the age of 96. According to NPR, the pioneering virtuoso died at the Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J., from the results of a fall.
A prolific originator, Walker has composed over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus. A 1946 work, Lyric for Strings, has been one of most frequently performed orchestral work by an American composer, and his other works have been performed by virtually every major orchestra in the U.S. and many others abroad.
“His music is always characterized by a great sense of dignity, which is how he always comported himself,” says composer Jeffrey Mumford, who, as a music professor at Lorain County Community College in Ohio, uses examples of Walker’s music in his classes. “His style evolved over the years; his earlier works, some written while still a student, embodied an impressive clarity and elegance.”
Even at the nascent stage of his career, Walker broke new ground. His 1945 debut made him the first Black pianist to perform solo at New York’s Town Hall. Two weeks after that performance, he became the first Black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And, that year, he also became the first Black graduate of the renowned Curtis Institute of Music.
In 1996, Walker reached the pinnacle of his career when he became the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra. He was previously nominated for the coveted award in 1977 for his piece, Dialogus for cello and orchestra.
“This composer has finally gotten the recognition he deserves,” said renowned conductor Zubin Mehta, at the time.
Walker was born in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 1922. His father, a West Indian immigrant, was a physician, and his mother, Rosa King, supervised his first piano lessons that began when he was 5.
Walker attended Dunbar High School and, upon graduation, was admitted to Oberlin College as a scholarship student in 1937. At the age of 18, he graduated from Oberlin College with the highest honors before joining the Curtis Institute. He later attainted a doctoral degree from Eastman School of Music in 1956.
In addition to being a composer and musician, Walker was also an educator. He taught at Dillard University in New Orleans after his first European tour. Later, he held faculty appointments to the Dalcroze School of Music, The New School for Social Research, Smith College (1961-68) (where he became the first Black tenured faculty member), the University of Colorado (1968-69), Rutgers University (1969-92, where he was Chairman of the Music Department), Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (1975-78) and the University of Delaware (1975-76, where he was the recipient of the first Minority Chair established by the University).
Walker has received numerous accolades for his work. In addition to his Pulitzer, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999 and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
This article originally appeared in The AFRO.