George Walker(1922-2018), Montclair resident and the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, passed away on Thursday, Aug. 23.
“Lilacs,” for voice and orchestra, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. It premiered with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. One year later, Mayor Marion Berry of Washington D.C., where Walker grew up, declared June 17 George Walker Day.
Walker’s was a life full of firsts: he was also the first African American to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the first to give a recital at Town Hall in New York City.
He attended Oberlin Conservatory, and became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College when he graduated in 1939, at just 18 years old. He then attended the Curtis Institute of Music.
An obituary on NPR writes, “Walker’s music was firmly rooted in the modern classical tradition, but also drew from African-American spirituals and jazz. His nearly 100 compositions range broadly, from intricately orchestrated symphonic works and concertos to intimate songs and solo piano pieces.”
Walker earned a PhD in musical arts from the Eastman School in 1956, with a dissertation that was his composition “Piano Sonata No. 2.” In 2014, Walker was nominated for the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and interviewed by The Montclair Times. Walker told The Montclair Times that the Pulitzer did not change his life, though the news was everywhere. He said then, “Piano is my great love.”
Walker had many academic teaching posts, including at the New School, Smith College (another first: first African American tenured faculty), and he chaired the music department of Rutgers University.
He is survived by two sons: violinist Gregory T.S. Walker, and playwright Ian Walker.