George Walker had a long, prolific composing career, was a respected teacher and was the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music alongside many other accolades.  
 
As a composer, he drew from a wide range of influences, and he made a huge impression on the music world, in spite of the racism that he experienced throughout his career. 
 
We explore his life and works, and suggest an activity inspired by his best-known composition, ‘Lyric for Strings’, which is recommended by the Model Music Curriculum for Year 4 and above. 
 
 
Image: Composer George Theophilus Walker at the piano, early 1940s. Source unknown. 
 

George Walker 

George Walker was born on 27th June 1922 in Washington DC. He began to play the piano at the age of five thanks to his mother, giving his first public recital nine years later at Washington’s Howard University. He started at the Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, at the age of 14. 
 
He was later accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia – where he studied composition with Samuel Barber – becoming one of the first Black graduates at that InstiWalker got his first recording contract in 1971. He performed his own works including ‘Sonata No. 2’, ‘Spatials’ and ‘Spektra’. 
 
During his career, Walker received many awards including two Guggenheim Fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions. In 1996 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work ‘Lilacs’, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. 
 
Walker died at the age of 96 in 2018 in New Jersey. But a year before his death, he had a lifelong dream fulfilled when ‘Lyric for Strings’ received its UK premier at the BBC Proms. The piece was performed by the Chineke! Orchestra, which was founded to provide career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians, in an effort to remove some of the barriers faced by artists like Walker.tution in 1945. 
 
This was one of many ways Walker broke the colour barrier. He was the first Black musician to play New York’s Town Hall in 1945, in a programme that included his own ‘Piano Sonata No 2’. He followed this with his debut at the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing Rachmaninov’s ‘Third Piano Concerto’, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. 
 
Walker went on to become the first Black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York in 1955. 
 
Despite his early success, racism impacted his career. Walker said:  
It took me five years to get concert management … I had friends who had done what I had done, and they got management immediately. But I was the most gifted piano student at Curtis. Everybody knew that, yet they were the ones that got management. I went to Europe and played in seven countries because I thought it would help get concerts here. It didn’t.” 
 
Walker moved to Paris in the late 1950s, where he spent two years studying with Nadia Boulanger thanks to a Fulbright fellowship. It has been said that Boulanger was so impressed by Walker’s aptitude that she exempted him from her usual student requirements, allowing him to choose his own repertoire to play at his lessons. Boulanger told Walker: “You are a composer!” at his first lesson, and she described his Piano Sonata No. 2 as ‘a masterpiece’
 
In 1960 Walker married the Canadian pianist and musicologist Helen Siemens. She was a devoted champion of Black composers and had also been a Fulbright scholar and student of Nadia Boulanger. 
 
For many years Walker combined his composition work with teaching, and he was the first Black tenured faculty member at Smith College in 1961, going on to teach at Rutgers University, New Jersey for several years, where he was Chair of the music department. He retired from teaching in 1992. 
 
His teaching role allowed him the opportunity to spend time on his compositions. In 1964 he won the Harvey Gaul Prize for his 'Sonata for Two Pianos'. 
Walker got his first recording contract in 1971. He performed his own works including ‘Sonata No. 2’, ‘Spatials’ and ‘Spektra’. 
 
During his career, Walker received many awards including two Guggenheim Fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions. In 1996 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work ‘Lilacs’, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. 
 
Walker died at the age of 96 in 2018 in New Jersey. But a year before his death, he had a lifelong dream fulfilled when ‘Lyric for Strings’ received its UK premier at the BBC Proms. The piece was performed by the Chineke! Orchestra, which was founded to provide career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians, in an effort to remove some of the barriers faced by artists like Walker. 
 
Walker died at the age of 96 in 2018 in New Jersey. But a year before his death, he had a lifelong dream fulfilled when ‘Lyric for Strings’ received its UK premier at the BBC Proms. The piece was performed by the Chineke! Orchestra, which was founded to provide career opportunities for Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians, in an effort to remove some of the barriers faced by artists like Walker. 

George Walker, the Composer 

Walker composed over 100 works across his career including symphonies, concerti, song cycles and solo piano works. His music was influenced by many different styles including jazz, folk songs, and church music, alongside the Western Classical music tradition. 
 
The National Endowment of the Arts commissioned Walker to write a Piano Concerto, which was premiered by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and Paul Freeman. 
 
In 2008, Walker wrote his ‘Violin Concerto’ for his son Gregory, who recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was followed in 2011 by the encore piece ‘Bleu’, also for his son. 
 
Walker spoke about being known as an “African American” in a 1987 interview with broadcaster Bruce Duffie, saying:  
“I’ve benefited from being a Black composer in the sense that when there are symposiums given of music by Black composers, I would get performances by orchestras that otherwise would not have done the works. 
 
“The other aspect, of course, is that if I were not Black, I would have had a far wider dispersion of my music and more performances.” 

Lyric for Strings 

One of Walker’s first compositions, ‘Lyric for Strings’, was originally the second movement of ‘String Quartet No. 1’, written in 1946, while he was still at the Curtis Institute of Music. The work received its world premiere that year by the Institute’s student orchestra, conducted by Seymour Lipkin. 
 
Walker expanded the work in 1990, scoring it for string orchestra with the new title of ‘Lyric for Strings’ and it went on to become his most performed composition. He dedicated the piece to his grandmother, Melvina King, who died not long before the work was completed. 
 
The piece is a single movement, lasting approximately six minutes. 

Activity 

Our activity this month, inspired by Walker’s ‘Lyric for Strings’, is to explore the sound made by families of instruments, for example: string quartets and string orchestras, cello octets, brass quintets and brass bands, saxophone quartets, recorder ensembles, all-female or all-male choirs, or drum ensembles. 
 
When composing, there is a wide range of different instrument sounds and human voices that can be written for. However, there are many compositions written for instruments and voices that sound alike, which draw on the similar timbre of the sounds. 
 
For this month’s activity, explore writing for two or more instruments or voices that are from the same family. 
 
Here are some pieces for inspiration: 
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