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In memory of Dr. George Walker (1922–2018)

George Walker (Piano and Composition ’45)Curtis is saddened by the news that George Walker (Piano and Composition ’45), renowned African American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, passed away on August 23 at age 96. Long a pioneering figure, Dr. Walker left a profound impact on the landscape of American music and remained active well into his nineties; he recently finished a symphony to be performed next year by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. In April the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performed his Lyric for Strings, and the school honored him with the President's Alumni Award at Commencement. 

Fellow alumnus David Ludwig, Curtis's chair of composition studies, penned this tribute to Dr. Walker:

“Dr. Walker created a great breadth of work over his long and highly respected career as a composer . He reminds me a bit of Bartók in his preternatural gifts as a performer, his sophistication as a composer, and his commitment to spirituals and American folk musical traditions. His music is rooted in the practice he learned already as a young student of composition and as a pianist, but it's also modern and fresh-sounding—and is both lyrical and complex at the same time. I grew up knowing about his music, but only later got to know more about his life and ground-breaking accomplishments. 

"Dr. Walker was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Curtis and the first African American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize in music. To call him a 'trailblazer' seems like an understatement. He told me that even though much work needs to be done to promote inclusion in classical music today, it was very rare to see any African American composers in American conservatories in those early years. He also told me he learned a great deal from being around so many wonderful instrumentalists and composers at Curtis. Aside from working with some of the legendary teachers at the school, he was supported by its founder (even after he graduated), to present him in a debut recital in New York.

"I only got to know Dr. Walker in the past couple of years, but we had some wonderful conversations about life and music, and he expressed himself always with that warm and inviting smile. It was very important to him that people got to hear his work. Even as a composer in his mid-nineties, as accomplished as he was, he took the time and made the effort to connect with all sorts of musicians who wanted to perform his compositions. 

"I have no doubt that his music is going to live on and continue to inspire generations of composers and performers, as it’s done for the past 75 years. Classical music has lost a great member of its community, and I think it owes a debt to Dr. Walker for his many contributions—both as an American composer who wrote elegant music of a wide scope, and as an iconic artist who accomplished so many firsts in the field.”

—David Ludwig

Curtis extends our deepest sympathies to Dr. Walker's family, friends, and colleagues.

Learn more about Dr. Walker's remarkable life and career in profiles from NPR and the Philadelphia Inquirer.