Composer Profile: George Walker, A Historic Pulitzer-Prize Winner

By David Salazar

George Walker was one of the great Black composers of all time.

Born on June 27, 1922, in Washington D.C., his mother Rosa King supervised his first piano lessons when he was but five years of age. By the time he was 14-years-old and a student of Howard University, Walker hosted his first recital. He was then admitted into the Oberlin Conservatory and graduated in 1939 at 18 with the highest honors.

Walker went to the Curtis Institute where he studied with some of the most renowned artists of all time, including Rudolf Serkin, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Rosario Scalero. He was one of the first Black graduates from the Institute.

Walker made his recital debut in New York at the Town Hall, becoming the first Black instrumentalist to do so. He would follow that with a performance of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto alongside Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; he was the first Black instrumentalist to appear alongside the famed ensemble.

In 1950, he became the first Black instrumentalist to be signed by a major management company when he joined National Concert Artists.

He would enjoy a prominent performing, composer, and teacher career in the ensuing decades appearing all around the world. He held faculty appointments with the Dalcroze School of Music, new School for Social Research, Smith College, University of Colorado Boulder, Rutgers University, the Peabody Institute, and the University of Delaware, among many others.

In 1996, Walker became the first Black composer o receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra. This was the capstone award in a long list of other major accolades include an election into the Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the Americal Classical Music Hall of Fame.

He passed away on August 23, 2018.

Major Works

Walker composed numerous works of all genres, but there is no doubt that as far as operatic and vocal work is concerned, “Lilacs” is his masterwork. The four-movement piece is based on Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The work has its premiere in 1996 and was the unanimous choice for the Pulitzer Prize jury.

Watch and Listen

Here is an iconic recording of Lilacs.


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