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American Composers from A to Z: W (Part 1 – Walker, George)

George Walker (27 June 1922- 23 August 2018) was an American composer, pianist, organist and music professor with a long list of accomplishments, recognitions, prizes, and “firsts.” To name a few: Walker was the first African American to graduate from Curtis Institute of Music in 1945 in piano and composition, he was the first African American winner of the Philadelphia Youth Audition to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and he was the first Black student to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Eastman School of Music in 1952. Most honorably, he was the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996, for his composition “Lilacs”.

George Walker holding a microphone

George Walker during Pre-Concert Lecture at The Library of Congress, 9/13/2013

Already at an early age, still attending Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., Walker started taking music courses at Howard University. He later stated that one of the most inspiring lessons he took away was learning about Black artists who had been successful. He then enrolled with a full scholarship at Oberlin College at the age of 14, where he graduated at age 18 with highest honors, moving on to Curtis Institute to further his studies with world known artists including Rudolf Serkin and Gregor Piatigorsky.

When an illness prevented him from continuing a full-time classical piano performance career, Walker decided to shift his focus to composition and teaching. His works are profound, with a captivating balance of tension and release, a broad range of expressiveness achieved through extended harmonies (unusual chords), unexpected cadences, intriguing dissonances (colorful note clashes), pointillistic interjections of motives, often combined with very lyrical melodies. To me his music is very unique, but if asked how it sounds, I would point in the direction of Olivier Messiaen and Anton Webern.

The Library of Congress commissioned three works by George Walker. You can read about them, and listen to George Walker talk in a 2013 pre-concert lecture held at the Library of Congress, in this blog. You can also explore additional information about this seminal composer on George Walker’s website.

Here at NLS, we currently have the following scores in braille available by George Walker:

Emily Dickinson Songs. For high voice and piano. (BRM36793)

Sonata for Violin and Piano, in one movement. (BRM36782)

You can download the braille scores from BARD, or request copies and other accessible music materials from NLS by calling us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or by emailing us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the NLS services and collections available to you.