George Walker, the composer, pianist and teacher who in 1996 became the first African-American awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music – for “Lilacs,” an orchestral song cycle setting verses from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” – has died at 96.
Walker, a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris and of Rudolf Serkin at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, could not overcome the color bar to pursue a career as a concert pianist, and turned to composition and teaching. He was the longtime chairman of the music department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and became a mentor to generations of African-African composers.
Walker’s best-known work is “Lyric for Strings,” an orchestration of the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 (1946), written in memory of his grandmother, who had been a slave.
An obituary by The Washington Post’s Harrison Smith: