Interview: Composer Geroge Walker
As an African-American, George Walker had no prospects for a career in 1940s America. But incredibly, by 1996 he would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music.
Walker was born in 1922 in Washington, D.C. He began piano lessons at age five, and entered Oberlin at 14 and the Curtis Institute at 19, after meeting Rudolf Serkin, who took him as a student there. Walker completed a Doctorate at Eastman. He would then continue to study in Europe with Nadia Boulanger.
He has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships. After two years abroad, and a performance tour that included the Hague, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Milan, and London, and an acclaimed Town Hall recital in New York, he would discover that he had essentially no prospects as a black concert pianist in 1940s America. He then decided to pursue a career in the academy. It would be a turning point and ironically, perhaps, a lucky one — the performer now became the composer. He has taught at the New School in New York City, Smith College, the Peabody Institute and Rutgers University where he was Professor of Music till his retirement.
Several of his earliest works have become among his most popular, including the "Lyric for Strings" (1941) and the "Trombone Concerto" (1957). He discusses these at length in our interview, revealing their origin and nature of first performance. He is particularly fond of his later "Violin Concerto" (2009), and the song cycle "Lilacs" (1995) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Both of these works have curious histories that Walker explains in our interview. Lilacs was submitted for the prize not by Walker, but by one of his sons, Ian. The other, Gregory, was the first performer and dedicatee of the "Violin Concerto."
Walker is at present approaching his 89th birthday, working on several new commissions, and has returned to his first love, the piano. In our conversation , he also offers his perception of his odd life's path and some views on the performance and reception of modern classical music. One of the great turning points in his career was in the 1970's when the Black Composer's Series was recorded by Columbia /Sony. He admits that until that project, he and other black composers had worked in isolation, unknown even to each other.