Black History: Special Delivery!!
George Theophilus Walker (1922 – 2018) was an African American composer. Walker held professorships at distinguished schools such as Smith College, where he became the first black tenured faculty member; Rutgers University, Peabody Institute in Maryland, University of Colorado, University of Delaware and at New York’s New School. Walker fancied himself to be more of a pianist rather than a composer. He made his professional debut with a solo recital at Town Hall in New York. According to Walker, he was the first African American composer to perform at Town Hall in 1945. He would follow this performance two weeks later with another “first”; being the first African American composer to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Walker would later reflect that it was through these performances that he experienced the “stigma” of race. Undeterred, he would continue to build his career as an academic and composer; as well as becoming an outspoken critic of racism within his circles.
Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996 for “Lilacs” arranged in stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”, He was the first African American to win a Pulitzer in the music category. Sadly, even the recognition of this prestigious award did not result in wider acclaim for his work or performances of his compositions. Walker composed over 90 pieces of original music throughout his career.
Walker was born on June 27, 1922, in Washington DC. His father was a West Indian physician. His mother was employed by the U.S. government at a print shop. His mother started him taking piano lessons at the age of 5. Walker gave his first public recital at age 14 at Howard University. After graduating high school he attended Oberlin College and graduated at age 18. He also attended Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1945 studying there with Rudolf Serkin and Samuel Barber. Walker also studied with the renowned Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Despite his training and talent, it was still challenging for him to be taken seriously as a classical composer. Walker often felt because he was black, he was expected to only play jazz and spirituals. Yet, he remained committed to his craft as a classical pianist and composer even though he did not receive the wider recognition that his musicianship deserved.
Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96. Check of this video of Walker performing his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Lilacs”: