George Walker: African-American Composer

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
George Walker on his album George Walker: Great American Concert Music
George Walker on his album George Walker: Great American Concert Music

George Walker was one of America's most honored composers, having had his works performed by every major orchestra in the country, and was the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. He composed nearly 100 pieces in forms ranging from solo piano pieces and songs to concerti and symphonies and was also a respected music professor and pianist.

George Theophilus Walker was born in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 1922. Walker's father was a physician who had emigrated from the West Indies. Walker's sister, Frances Walker-Slocum, was also a distinguished educator, pianist, and organist. His wife, Helen Walker-Hill, was a pianist and musicologist specializing in music composed by African American women. Their son, Gregory T.S. Walker, is a violinist and composer, and their son Ian Walker is a playwright.

Walker began piano lessons with his mother at the age of five and continued his early musical training at Howard University, where he gave his first public performance at the age of 14. At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Samuel Barber. A year after graduation he wrote his first string quartet, the second movement of which he revised into Lyric for Strings nearly five decades later—possibly his most-performed piece, and one of the most-performed pieces by a contemporary American composer. He toured Europe as a concert pianist in 1954, and continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music the following year, becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate from that institution in 1956. In 1957 he returned to Europe and spent two years furthering his compositional studies with famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. He toured as a performer in Europe again in 1959.

During the 1960s, Walker shifted his focus to a long and distinguished teaching career. He held positions at such institutions as the Dalcroze School of Music, Smith College, the University of Colorado, Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Delaware. He chaired the music department at Rutgers University from 1969 until his retirement in 1992, as Professor Emeritus.

Though his musical influences as a composer came from mainstream trends of 20th-century classical music such as serialism, the works of Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as African-American spirituals, blues, and jazz, Walker has his own distinct musical voice. Walker commented, "I had to find my own way, a way of doing something that was different, something that I would be satisfied with." His music is marked by intellectual rigor rather than an overt display of emotionalism. His musical concerns are for formal construction and an emphasis on counterpoint and chromaticism. As an accomplished pianist, Walker's piano music shows an intimate knowledge of keyboard technique, but never resorts to simple virtuosity. Not light music, his music can challenge the listener, but pays with repeated listenings.

He continued his work in composition throughout his life, receiving commissions from such major orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, and performances by orchestras throughout the world. His many awards included two Guggenheim Fellowships and two Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. In a compositional career highlighted by many honors, in 1996 Walker became the first African American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music, for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra. Based on a text by Walt Whitman in memory of the death of Abraham Lincoln, Lilacs was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry declared Walker's 75th birthday—June 17, 1997—"George Walker Day", and he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2000. His autobiography, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, was published in 2009. His last orchestral work, the fifth of his 'Sinfonias', was Visions, in memory of the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in 2015. Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96.

We are fortunate to have a good selection of scores and online recordings by George Walker in the library's collection. Please take some time to review the resources available to our patrons on this distinguished contemporary American composer, and give his music a listen.

Recordings and Scores of George Walker

Recordings of George Walker’s Music on Freegal

Book cover for George Walker: Great American Concert Music
George Walker: Great American Concert Music

Book cover for Walker: Mass - Brahms: Concerto for Piano, No. 2
Walker: Mass - Brahms: Concerto for Piano, No. 2

Book cover for George Walker: Composer and Performer
George Walker: Composer and Performer

Book cover for George Walker in Concert
George Walker in Concert

Book cover for George Walker Composer/Pianist
George Walker Composer/Pianist

George Walker Scores in the Library Voice & Piano

Nine Songs for Voice & Piano
Walker, George

Take, O Take Those Lips Away: Bass or Tenor and Piano
Walker, George

And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus?: For Baritone Voice and Piano
Walker, George

Emily Dickinson Songs: For High Voice and Piano
Walker, George

Softly, Blow Lightly: For Medium Voice & Piano (1998)
Walker, George

Three Songs for Voice and Piano (1992)
Walker, George

I Got a Letter From Jesus: For Medium Voice and Piano
Walker, George

Ev'ry Time I Feel de Spirit: For High Voice and Piano
Walker, George


Piano Sonata No. 1 (1953)
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1956/1988)
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1976)
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1984/2008)
Piano Sonata No. 5 (2003/2008)
Spatials: Variations for Piano (1972)
Spektra (1972)
Prelude and Caprice (1975)

Solo Instrument & Piano

Perimeters: For Clarinet and Piano (1966/2008)
Five Fancies: For Clarinet and piano four hands (1975/1978)
Sonata (in one movement): For Violin and Piano (1970)

Instrumental Ensemble

String Quartet No. 1 (1947/1990)
Lyric: For Strings (1975)
Music for Three Violin, Cello and Piano (1970/1991)