By GWEN OREL
George Walker, 96, a Montclair resident and the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, passed away on Thursday, Aug. 23. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, Sept. 6, at Martin’s Home for Service, 48 Elm St., from 4 to 7 p.m.
Walker had a progressive ailment relating to the heart and kidneys, said his son Gregory T.S. Walker, but was composing up to the end, and had several outstanding commissions. Montclair Orchestra will perform Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” during its second season, on March 10.
Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for “Lilacs,” for voice and orchestra. He was the first African American composer to garner the distinction. “Lilacs” premiered with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. The next year, Mayor Marion Berry of Washington D.C., where Walker grew up, declared June 17 George Walker Day.
At just 18 years old, he graduated from Oberlin Conservatory, and became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College in 1939.
Walker’s life was full of firsts. He was the first African American to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and to give a recital at Town Hall in New York City.
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, when Walker was nominated for the New Jersey Hall of Fame, he told The
Montclair Times that the Pulitzer did not change his life. He said then, “Piano is my great love.”
To Montclair musicians, he was both inspiring and friendly, although often too busy composing to see their work. Despite his critical acclaim, he was humble, hardworking, and kind, say those who knew him.
“The biggest thing about him, was that every time I saw him, he’d pretty much tell me the same thing. I would say, ‘What are you up to?’ and he’d say, ‘Just trying to get people to play my music,’” said Diane Moser, leader of Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band. Moser was impressed with Walker’s lifelong dedication to his work. She tells her students about Walker determination when they face a disappointment at not receiving a grant or a gig.
“He was dedicated to realizing his ideas,” said guitar player John Ehlis. “He had a strong sense of form. In any of his work, he’s playing a lot with color and texture. There’s an invention in his melodies and harmonies and rhythm, and a deep emotion in it. It’s not familiar-sounding music.”
Walker however, loved all kinds of music, Ehlis said. “We would talk about everything from Pete Seeger to Ornette Coleman.”
According to an obituary from NPR, “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’s love of music drove him to acquire a sophisticated hi-fi system. Eugene Pitts, publisher of the magazine Audiophile Voice and also a Montclairite, said that Walker’s combination of love of music with love of equipment is very rare.
“There are very few people in the world who like the good playing of music, good musicianship, from Country and Western to Classical, and at the same time can understand when the equipment is making it sound good. It’s like Stradivarius building his violins and writing a Bach sonata.
“There are few pieces of classical music that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, a few of his did that,” Pitts said.
Walker had many academic teaching posts, including at the New School, Smith College (another first as the 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. Going into the family business of music “felt pretty inevitable,” Gregory T.S. Walker said from his home in Colorado. Gregory T.S. Walker, previously concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic and now a violin soloist, is also a composer. Although his father did not always like his son’s compositions much, “it was something that we shared,” he said.
In 2010, Gregory T.S. Walker performed a violin concerto that his father had written for him, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The music was extremely challenging, and “the world was watching.” During the applause, George Walker was ushered onstage. “As we embraced, he told me that he loved me. We had an old-fashioned relationship. It was not a statement I heard every day,” said Gregory T.S. Walker.
Ian Walker went into theater instead of music, and works as a director and playwright in California. “My dad was very aware of how difficult it is to do well in the music field,” Ian Walker said. He recalled his father’s humbleness about his accomplishments, and did not understand how well-known George Walker was until a friend’s father mentioned it when Ian was 13.
“My dad wrote in such a huge range. One of the things he was very conscientious about was never repeating himself. Whenever he got a musical idea, he would stop and think, ‘Where have I heard this before?’ If he couldn’t come up with anyone, then he would do it,” said Ian Walker.
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson said in an email that Walker was “a leading citizen of the world, who privileged us by calling Montclair home.”