Although he started out as a highly promising concert pianist in a grand style (some of his most prominent concerts featured concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Brahms), George Walker was writing substantial music from his mid-twenties. By the time he was 40, he had solidly established himself as a flexible, fully contemporary composer and it is on his large catalog of works produced from the early '50s to about 1990 that his reputationRead more will rest.
He studied piano through childhood, going on to obtain degrees in performance from Oberlin (bachelor of music, 1941) and the Eastman School of Music (doctor of musical arts, 1957). He also studied at the Curtis Institute and with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory, Fontainbleau. His teachers included Rudolf Serkin; Robert Casadesus; Mieczyslaw Horszowski; and in chamber music, Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose.
Walker seemed destined for a fine career at the keyboard. He won acclaim with his Town Hall debut in New York in 1945 and was the first black musician to play there. Also that year, he was the first African American instrumentalist to win the Philadelphia Orchestra auditions, which led to a performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with that orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. He toured America and Europe as a soloist through the 1950s. During this period, his presence as a black man on the classical stage surely held curiosity value, but it was through his work as a pianist and subsequently as a composer that the African American presence in classical music began to seem unexceptional. From the mid-'50s, his teaching career included short stints at various colleges and long-term affiliations with Smith College (1961 - 1968) and Rutgers University (1969 - 1992, including two years chairing the music department).
"I believe that music is above race," Walker once said, and his own music does not strongly position him as an African American composer. His mature style grafts serialism onto neo-Classical forms, binding the two with complex rhythms, Hindemithian counterpoint, strong timbral contrasts, and occasional evocations of black folk music through reference to blues, spirituals, and jazz. He won the Pulitzer Prize (the first living black composer to do so) in 1996 for Lilacs, a work for soprano or tenor and orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony.
Although he was an adept orchestrator, his acknowledged masterpiece is for solo piano: the 1956 Sonata No. 2, written as his doctoral dissertation for Eastman. It's a short work that displays Walker's fascination with classical forms (variations on a ground bass, sonatina), while insinuating a jazzy syncopation into the scherzo. It's not an entirely characteristic work, though, in its fairly conservative harmony. The same can be said of his most widely heard orchestral piece, the Lyric for Strings, a 1946 transcription of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Two better examples of Walker's mature voice date from 1975: Piano Sonata No. 3 and Music for Brass (Sacred and Profane). Both are angular works reflecting Walker's fascination with sonority. His more populist but still dissonant mode is well-represented by 1990's Folk Songs for Orchestra. Read less