Walker: Lyric for Strings
Few living composers can claim the length and breadth of experience of George Walker, who at 95 has refused to rest on the solid career he began establishing more than 75 years ago. Born in Washington, D.C., he is known for a series of musical “firsts”: He was one of the first African- Americans to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, and he was the first black pianist to debut at New York’s Town Hall, to earn a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, and to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra (in 1945). Another notable first came in 1996, when at 75 he became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music—for his Lilacs. Today we thank the efforts of early pioneers such as Walker for bringing greater diversity to classical music, though much work remains. His legacy lives on also in the many students he taught at Smith College, the University of Colorado, the Peabody Institute, the University of Delaware and Rutgers University, where for many years he was department chair and distinguished professor.
Walker showed early promise on the piano as early as 5, and at age 14 he performed a recital at Howard University. He entered Oberlin College the following year, graduating at age 18. With a promising career in front of him, he continued piano studies with Rudolf Serkin at Curtis, where he was also a composition student of Rosario Scalero. Various factors, including racial barriers, hindered the flourishing of Walker’s concert career. He subsequently went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, also continuing his piano studies with Robert Casadesus. Walker later earned a doctorate from the Eastman School, where Howard Hanson was a mentor, after which he settled into a productive teaching career.
Walker has written a large volume of music, including orchestral, chamber, solo piano, and choral works—beginning in the mid-1940s and continuing almost up to the current day. In recent years he has produced prominent concertos for violin (written for his son, Gregory) and cello (Dialogus) and ample choral, chamber and orchestral works. His Sinfonia No. 5 employs narration, spirituals, and other elements to address the Charleston church massacre of 2015—the National Symphony will premiere it in the 2019–20 season.
Yet with 75 years of compositional output, Walker’s most oft-performed orchestral work remains the Lyric for Strings from 1946, which began its life as the slow movement of his first string quartet. This meditation on the lush tones of orchestral strings shows but a glimpse of the complexity, density, and dramatic sophistication of his later music, but it is a tender and effective youthful piece.