First Black Pulitzer Prize winner in Music

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Composer George Theophilus Walker has been gracing the world with beautiful music for decades.

And for three nights—December 14, 15, 16—the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will pay homage to the music maestro as part of its BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts led by guest conductor Arild Remmereit.

walkergeorge
GEORGE WALKER
90 year old composer

“The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has performed his work, ‘Lyric For Strings,’ many times before,” said Ramesh Santanam, director of Media Relations at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “This time we are performing his Sinfonia No. 4. Strands, which we co-commissioned with three other orchestras New Jersey Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Symphony.”

Walker is happy that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has decided to tackle the serious aria.

“I’d already written three symphonies before and this piece had to be for a full orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is a very fine orchestra. The piece they are doing is 10 minutes long and there’s a lot in it that makes it serious,” said Walker, 90, who resides in New Jersey.

Walker, who was born in June 1922 in Washington, D.C., began his foray into music at age five with his first piano lesson under the supervision of his mother. Before he graduated from high school at the age of 14, the musical prodigy had his first public recital at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. In 1937 he was admitted to Oberlin College on scholarship where he studied piano and organ. He graduated from the prestigious college at the age of 18 with highest honors. Two years later he became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College. From there he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano, chamber music and composition.

He graduated from the institute with Artistic Diplomas in Piano and Composition in 1945. Walker was the first Black person to graduate from the renowned music school.

After graduating, Walker held his debut recital in Town Hall New York. He became the first Black instrumentalist to perform in that hall. As the winner of the Philadelphia Youth Auditions, he played the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducting for two weeks after his New York debut in November of 1945. He was the first Black instrumentalist to appear with this orchestra.

In 1946, Walker continued breaking barriers by playing the 2nd Piano Concerto of Brahms with the Baltimore Symphony and the 4th Beethoven Concerto. In 1946 Walker composed his “String Quartet no 1.” The second movement of this work, entitled “Lyric For Strings” has become the most frequently performed orchestral work by a living American composer. In 1950, he became the first Black instrumentalist to be signed by major management, the National Concert Artists. Four years later he toured seven European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Germany.

After returning stateside, Walker entered the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree Program at Eastman School of Music in 1955. A year later he became the first Black recipient of a doctoral degree and an Artist Diploma in Piano. He was awarded both a Fulbright Fellowship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1957. He was the first composer to receive the Whitney Fellowship.

In 1996 Walker became the first Black composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work, “Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra.” which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“I didn’t set out to do all of that stuff. I’d never thought about all of that,” Walker said. “I just simply wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize. I knew that the submission had been made and I was informed by phone that I had won. I was inundated with nationwide interviews. It’s not a culmination of your life’s work, it only deals with work composed in a year. There are over 100 submissions.”

Walker has published more than 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, organ, voice, clarinet, brass, guitar, woodwinds and chorus. His works have been performed by almost every major orchestra in the United States and by many in England and other countries. He has received important commissions from many ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, the Eastman School of Music and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

He should have his 13th CD edited by Christmas and released in the beginning of 2013.

“When I start a piece, something strikes me and completing it is never something I have to find an effort to do. I work very peacefully, but it’s not a continuous process. I don’t have to do something everyday,” said Walker, who will be returning to Pittsburgh after a 20-plus year hiatus to hear the Symphony Orchestra perform his piece.

In addition to Walker’s “Sinfonia No. 4 Strands,” the program will also include Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony and Wolfgang Amade Mozart’s “Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin and Orchestra.”

The concerts will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $20 to $93 and can be purchased by calling the Heinz Hall box office at 412-392-4900 or by visiting http://www.pittsburghsymphonyorchestra.org.

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