George Walker, the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music and once a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, has died at the age of 96.
Walker died Aug. 23, and a memorial service will be held Thursday in Montclair, N.J., where he lived, according to the Montclair Times.
Walker was awarded a Pulitzer in 1996 for "Lilacs," a work for voice and orchestra that was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During his career, he composed more than 90 works for orchestra, piano, strings, voice and more, according to his personal website.
He faced obstacles in his career because he was black, his son Gregory Walker said. Gregory Walker is a CU Denver professor, artistic director of the Colorado NeXt Music Fest and former longtime concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic.
In the 1940s and 1950s when he was a touring concert piano soloist, George Walker was told by management companies that it would be difficult to promote a black pianist in the classical music industry, Gregory Walker said. And although he was pleased when he was later awarded a Pulitzer, he also wondered why it took so long for the industry to recognize his work.
"The basic response was: 'What took them so long?'" Gregory Walker said. "He was in his 70s. Why did it take the Pulitzer committee and the greater American cultural establishment at large so long to acknowledge that he was operating at this really high level?"
George Walker also taught at a number of universities, including Rutgers University, where he worked for more than two decades and served as the chair of the music department, according to his personal website. He was a visiting professor of piano at CU during the 1968-69 academic year.
"If there were one thing that drew him to this employment (teaching) — which is something that a lot of creative, musical artists are lucky to get just to pay their bills, in a practical sense — it would be that he always loved the history and the canon and the techniques of historical classical music," Gregory Walker said. "That was reflected in his music that he wrote, but it's also what you're exploring when you teach a lot of musical subjects at a college or university."
George Walker's work "Lyric for Strings" is performed most often and is sometimes described as the piece most frequently performed by an American composer during his lifetime, Gregory Walker said. George Walker wrote it early in his career, and it had a more accessible, lyrical style than his later works, Gregory Walker said.
It is a short piece, slow, gentle and elegiac, and dedicated to his maternal grandmother, who was born a slave.
George Walker's later works were more complex, abstract and not designed with the purpose of selling widely. He believed these complex works were the most meaningful way to make music, even if it meant sacrificing profits and recognition, Gregory Walker said.
As children, Gregory Walker and his brother, Ian, wanted their father to compose the "easy" music, the music everybody liked. He once came to the dinner table and told them he would do that, but he promptly declared it a joke and left the table.
"It's taken all these decades to appreciate what it was to do what he did and be who he was and pursue this musical calling," Gregory Walker said. "It's more personal than that."
George Walker encouraged his sons in their pursuit of the arts, too. Ian Walker is a playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area who also has worked professionally as a photographer and videographer.
"He was a staunch supporter for me," Gregory Walker said. "The belief that he had in me and my brother, and his insistence that we believe in each other, made a huge difference."
Beyond music, which "was at his core," George Walker played tennis; compiled stereo equipment in his living room that resembled a NASA control center; and grew fine tomatoes in a garden, Gregory Walker said.
He was born in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 1922. He began attending Oberlin College after graduating high school at the age of 14, and he graduated from college at the age of 18.
He leaves a lasting legacy for music aficionados and regular people alike, Gregory Walker said.
"My theory is that my father represented something that's very inspirational for a lot of people," Gregory Walker said. "Not only did he represent being a black man who succeeded in surely the whitest of the white arts, European classical music, but (he was) somebody who did it his own way, with a very uncompromising approach to the arts."
Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, email@example.com