By Ricky O’Bannon
Throughout February, we will highlight the work of one of the often under-celebrated African-American contributors to the history of classical music. For more in the series, check out our listening guides for William Grant Still and Florence Price or a timeline of the classical music history of Baltimore's African-American community.
George Walker is internationally renown and the first African-American composer to earn a Pulitzer Prize, but early on for Walker, composing was a side project that gave him somewhere to put his leftover musical energy when practicing five hours a day to become a concert pianist wasn’t enough.
That tremendous energy describes both Walker’s music and the man who is still working and writing well into his 90s.
Walker was born in Washington, D.C. in 1922 and started piano lessons at age five. When he was 14 years old, Walker enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory. After graduation at age 18, Walker enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music and became the first black graduate from the conservatory in 1945.
After graduation from Curtis, Walker balanced a career as a concert pianist, teacher and composer — achieving many milestones for African-American musicians in each category.
As a pianist he became the first black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he performed Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. In 1947, he performed Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Reginald Stewart, and in 1950 he became the first black musician to be signed by a major artist management company, which led to a 1954 tour of seven European countries.
As a composer, Walker has written more than 90 pieces for solo piano, voice, winds, small ensembles and orchestra. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1996, and has earned dozens of composition awards and prizes including Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Fulbright fellowships.
Lyric for Strings
Written in 1946, Lyric for Strings remains Walker’s best know and most-performed work. The piece was originally titled Lament and is dedicated to Walker’s grandmother who died the year prior. Walker is known for his counterpoint and has said he likes writing vertically rather than horizontally.
Lyric embodies this thought process as the piece is driven by separate linear melody and accompaniment lines in the strings that occasionally come together for climactic moments of harmony. Somewhat akin to the history of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Walker’s Lyric was originally the middle movement of a string quartet that proved so popular that the composer repurposed into a larger orchestral work.
Lilacs is a song cycle for piano and soprano that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1996. For Lilacs , Walker set four stanzas of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” to music. The poem is an elegy by Whitman for the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
The Pulitzer committee wrote that the piece was “The unanimous choice of the Music Jury, this passionate, and very American, musical composition ... has a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality using words of Walt Whitman.”
Walker wrote Bleu for solo violin in 2011 for his son Gregory, a violinist who previously premiered Walker’s violin concerto. The piece is representative of Walker’s later style, which is very harmonically complex. Gregory Walker said that his father’s writing for violin asks “technical challenges that are borderline absurd at times,” but he says it is rewarding for that same reason.
Bleu also includes a quotation of a well-known jazz standard. Walker regularly uses quotations of spirituals or jazz in his compositions, but they are often almost hidden by unusual harmonies where they act like an unexpected discovery for the careful listener.