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Timeline: George Walker (1922-2018)

George Walker successfully balanced three careers, one as a world-renowned pianist, one as a sought after professor and another as a prolific composer.
Barbara Steinberg
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CC-BY-SA
George Walker successfully balanced three careers, one as a world-renowned pianist, one as a sought after professor and another as a prolific composer.

June 17th 1997, was “George Walker Day” in Washington DC as established by Mayor Marion Berry. It was a day to commemorate the life, music and legacy of one of the most accomplished American composers of late 20th Century, George Theophilus Walker.

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George Walker was born in DC in 1922. His father emigrated from Jamaica to study and become a physician. George’s mother, Rosa King, was his first piano teacher when he was only five years old. Walker was exceptionally bright. He attended Howard University while still in high school and graduated from Oberlin College at the age of 18. He went on the study at the Curtis Institute of Music taking piano from Rudolf Serkin and composition from Samuel Barber. George Walker was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Curtis and later the first to earn a doctorate from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

George Walker successfully balanced three careers, one as a world-renowned pianist, one as a sought after professor and another as a prolific composer.

He was the first African-American instrumentalist to perform at Manhattan’s Town Hall for his debut concert. He was also the first to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. In 1950, George Walker was the first African-American musician to be represented by National Concert Artists. He embarked on multiple European tours, earning a glowing reputation outside of the United States; especially in London where we became an honorary member of the Frederick Chopin Society.

In 1957, Walker was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship which allowed him to spend two years in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger.

As a professor, George Walker taught at Dillard University in New Orleans, Smith College, the University of Colorado Boulder and Rutgers, just to name a few. He was a guest lecturer and gave masterclasses at many, many more.

As a composer, Walker’s musical style was eclectic to say the least, drawing from many different influences, including classical, jazz and gospel.  His output runs a wide gamut of genres from his Spatials for Piano, a 12-tone, atonal work in the musical language of Arnold Schoenberg, to the pop-music influenced vocal piece Leaving.

His music started to gain attention back in 1946. The 2nd movement of Walker’s String Quartet no. 1, which at the time was named Lament, was performed on the radio. It was a very successful broadcast. Walker ended up renaming the movement Lyric for Strings and today it is one of his most beloved works.

Walker had a long successful career as a composer. In 1996, He was awarded the Pulitzer Price in Music for Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra. George Walker died in 2018, at the age of 96.

Read Walker’s story in his own words. Check out his autobiography Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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