George Walker
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

As if being an American composer weren’t usually struggle enough, try being a wholly individual black composer like GEORGE WALKER (born 1922). He grew up in Washington D.C.— son of a Jamaican father who became a medical doctor, and an American mother who was his first piano teacher — and entered Oberlin College at age 15, graduating with highest honors. Walker continued his education at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, becoming its first black graduate. Numerous other “black firsts” followed; but despite notable acclaim as a concert pianist, Walker found the virtuoso’s life frustrating and in 1955, he began his PhD at the Eastman School of Music, followed by study in Paris with famed pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. The results of all this training have proven formidable, if difficult to summarize. While he earned his living as a professor, Walker’s compositions — which employ the widest variety of modernist techniques excluding electronics — have none of the aridity associated with “academic” composers. Walker might be atonal, he might be bluesy, jazzy or lyrical; often Walker’s pieces are wholly abstract. But he’s also written terrific Emily Dickinson and Countee Cullen songs and won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music for a Walt Whitman setting, “Lilacs.” Indeed, if his work has any problem — besides the institutional racism which has likely hindered more frequent performance — it’s the stern individuality he revels in. “I had to find my own way,” Walker says. “Something that was different; something that I would be satisfied with.”

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.