George Theophilus Walker

George Walker (1922-2018) is often identified as an "African-American" composer instead of simply an American composer. In a 1987 interview, Walker said there are two sides to that label. 

"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," Walker said. "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.” 

While still in high school, he began to attend Howard University, then went to Oberlin where he graduated at 18 with the highest honors.  From there he attended Curtis, studying with Rudolf Serkin, chamber music with Primrose and Piatagorsky, and composition with Barber’s teacher, Rosario Scalero.  Later, Walker received a Fulbright Fellowship and went to Paris to study with Boulanger. 

Unfortunately in our profession, like many composers of color, he had the (dubious) honor of firsts: first black instrumentalist to perform in New York’s Town Hall (sponsored by the Zimbalists!), first black instrumentalist to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra, first black instrumentalist to have major management; then later in a varied career in academia being the first black man in various faculty positions, as chair, and so on.  He was also the first black composer to receive the Pulitzer for his work “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra. He wrote works for every genre: orchestral, chamber, piano, organ, vocal. 

Walker received two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Rockefeller Fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and honorary doctorates from six institutions, including Oberlin and Spelman Colleges. In 1997, Washington D.C.'s mayor, Marion Barry, declared June 17th as George Walker Day. 

The work featured today was originally a movement from his string quartet, which he later orchestrated for string orchestra.  Here in its original version, beautifully performed by, it deserves a place of prominence in our standard repertoire. 

String Quartet No. 1

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