Composer and pianist George Walker has enjoyed one of the most stellar careers in music despite being largely ignored by the greater public. Among his many firsts, he is the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music and today is his 96th birthday.
George Theophilus Walker was born on this day in 1922 in Washington, D.C. The son of Jamaican parents from Kingston, Walker was immersed in music at a young age through his mother. As a prodigious pianist, he graduated from Oberlin College at 18 and studied piano at the Curtis Institute of Music, becoming one of the school’s first Black graduates.
In 1945, Walker was the first Black instrumentalist to perform at Manhattan’s Town Hall in a performance that drew raves from the likes of The New York Times. Two weeks later, he made history again by becoming the first Black instrumentalist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Shortly after, National Concert Artists, a popular management company, signed Walker as a client, also a first for a Black musician.
Despite his early successes, Walker would not have the same number of classical performances as his white counterparts. Instead, he poured his creative vision into his own works earning a 1996 Pulitzer win for “Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra.” On June 17, 1997, the late Marion Barry, then serving as mayor of Washington, D.C, declared the day “George Walker Day” in honor of his achievements.
Today, Walker is still hammering away. His son, George T.S. Walker, is an accomplished composer and violinist, an instrument the elder Walker calls among his favorites. His other son, Ian Walker, is a notable playwright.
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