George Theophilus Walker was born in Washington D.C. on June 27, 1922. He began learning piano at the age of five. Before graduating from Dunbar High School , George Walker was presented in his first public recital at age 14 at Howard University. In 1939, he became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College. Graduating at 18 from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his Conservatory class, he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano, chamber music, and composition.
George Walker achieved many remarkable accomplishments throughout his career. He was the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1945. He was also the first black musician to play New York’s Town Hall in the same year. George Walker was the first African American to win a Pulitzer prize for music in 1996, for his Walt Whitman song-cycle, Lilacs. Walker was the first black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School in 1955 and the first black tenured faculty member at Smith College in 1961.
Through his many achievements, he also dealt with prejudices, lack of opportunities, and segregation as a Black man in America during the early 20th century. He had to overcome cultural and racial prejudice throughout his life and career.
Some notable works by Walker include Lyric for Strings, Lilacs, Sinfonia No 4, Strands, movements for cello, and orchestra, Sinfonia no 3. His music is described as vivid and filled with expressionistic power. I have included a video of his piece Lyrics for Strings which is one of his most performed works. Through George Walker’s compositions, classical music has benefited greatly.