Opera Philadelphia

Who was George Walker?

Reprinted from Brittanica Kids

African American composer, pianist, and educator. An early and influential African American composer, George Walker won the 1996 Pulitzer prize for music for ‘Lilacs’.

Born on June 22, 1922, in Washington, D.C., Walker studied piano from the age of 5. In 1941 he received a degree in music from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He later studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music with Rudolf Serkin, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Gregor Piatigorsky, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.

Walker debuted as a concert pianist in 1945 and began teaching several years later. He taught at Dillard University in New Orleans, La., the New School for Social Research in New York, Smith College, the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Md., the University of Colorado, and Rutgers University. Walker was awarded honorary degrees from Lafayette College in 1982 and Oberlin in 1983, and he won the Koussevitsky award in 1988.

Walker’s ‘Lyric for Strings’ (1946) was written as a memorial for his grandmother. ‘Gloria in Memoriam’ (1963), for chorus and orchestra, was his first piece to be published. Other notable works included ‘Lament’ (1941), ‘Address for Orchestra’ (1959), and ‘Mass’ (1976). His ‘Sonata for Two Pianos’ received the Harvey Gaul Prize in 1963. ‘Piano Concerto’ (1975) was written with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Its first and third movements displayed elements of fugue and other traditional styles, and the middle movement featured a jazz style in tribute to Duke Ellington. The Pulitzer-prizewinning ‘Lilacs’, inspired by the Walt Whitman poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, was a work for voice and orchestra that premiered in a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1996. Walker also wrote piano sonatas, string quartets, violin sonatas, and works for orchestra, chamber music, and chorus. Some of his early works contained elements of serialism, a mode of composition that was popular at the time, and many of his pieces reflected the influence of African American folk tunes and rhythms.

Walker remained involved in the work of African American musicians as a member of the board of directors of the American Bach Foundation and as a participant in such events as the annual Symposium on Black American Composers sponsored by the Detroit Symphony. By the time he was awarded the Pulitzer prize, the prolific Walker had published over 70 works.

Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb

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