Looking Past the Pulitzer
Do African American composers have a place in the classical music world?

by Tamima Friedman ’83 / photo by Arthur Paxton

George Walker is angry, although you wouldn’t know it from the sound of his voice. Dressed in a dark wool suit, he is sitting in the living room of his modest home in Montclair, New Jersey, where he has lived for 30 years, speaking in soft-spoken tones that can barely be heard. Other than a tennis injury that sidelined him temporarily from his favorite sport, Walker, who turned 80 this June, shows few signs of his age. Given his busy schedule of travel, speaking, recording, and composing, another birthday is the last thing on his mind. “I don’t want to think about that,” he insists. He has just returned from engagements in Delaware and North Carolina and is looking forward to the upcoming performance of his Cantata by the Oratorio Society of New Jersey.

Walker’s quiet demeanor belies a passion and energy that emerge from time to time as he jumps up to retrieve the score of a recent composition or speaks about things that irk him—like the Jersey tomato, just ripe for picking—that was plucked mysteriously from his garden last summer. But he grows even quieter when talking about issues that trouble him profoundly, such as why there has been little public interest in his work despite the momentous spring of 1996, when he became the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. His winning composition, Lilacs, a 16-minute work for soprano and orchestra, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered in February of that year.

“The fact is that with all the publicity, Lilacs has had only a few performances, one of which was at Oberlin,” Walker says. “And even if that work were not performed, there certainly is reason to expect that other works of mine might be done, or that I might be commissioned by orchestras.”

Sadly, says Walker, that hasn’t been the case—an experience that reinforces his belief that African American classical composers and performers lack the acceptance and recognition of their jazz counterparts. “It really boils down to assumptions that are made that are never fully counteracted,” he says. “Blacks are accepted as entertainers involved in dance and singing, but as (classical) composers and performers, we’re met with resistance—to the point that it’s kind of a reinstatement of a ghetto.”

Still, some might argue that Walker himself has managed to escape such ghettoization. His distinguished career includes a long list of achievements. After graduating in 1941 with the highest honors in his Conservatory class, he attended the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with pianist Rudolf Serkin. He was the first black instrumentalist to perform in Town Hall in 1945, as well as the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music in 1955. In 1957, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and spent two years in Paris, where he studied with influential teacher and composer Nadia Boulanger. He has taught at Smith College, the University of Colorado, and Rutgers, and has seen more than 80 of his works published with commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 1983, Oberlin awarded him an honorary doctor of music degree.

Walker says he was lucky in his relationship with his first publisher and champion, Paul Kapp at General Music Publishing Company. “I would give Paul a manuscript of something that hadn’t even been performed, and he would have it engraved without any cost to me.”

But Walker was never interested in leaving behind a body of work to molder on a shelf. “Grants and fellowships are one thing, but performances are another,” he says. And when it comes to performances of his works, Walker believes that he has not had an easy time. Witness New York City’s music festival, A Great Day in New York, organized last year to focus public attention on the stylistic diversity of 52 living composers in greater New York. Walker was not among them. “I was never called,” he says, his irritation palpable. “The inconsistency is very disturbing. When there are opportunities to be involved in groups that are very active in contemporary music, there is no attempt to make contact with me.”

Walker’s omission from the New York music festival comes as no surprise to some. “Since composers are the least profitable part of the music-world pie, they have been increasingly marginalized from the professional world,” says a prominent New York musician who asked not to be named. “The number of worthy musicians who live in obscurity is quite large, and the musical community’s sense of responsibility to its older members is nonexistent, unless there’s a buck to be made.”

This sad state of affairs was brought home to Walker recently when he stumbled upon two articles on commissions awarded over the years by the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “I was not on the list for either, despite the fact that I’ve had five works done by the New York Philharmonic, and it’s only been six years since the Boston Symphony performed my Pulitzer Prize piece,” he says.

And when it comes to recordings, Walker is not the only composer left standing in the cold. When the New York Philharmonic put together CDs of its works, he says, the only African American composer included was Duke Ellington. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not a single black composer was represented. “The Boston [Symphony] compilation was of their radio broadcasts. My piece from 1996 was certainly broadcast, but it was not included in the list.”

Walker went to great pains to have a performance of Lilacs released after it was premiered and taped by the Boston Symphony. For months, he wracked his brain wondering how to raise $17,000 to buy one of the symphony’s broadcast tapes. But that sum covered the orchestra’s costs only; there would still be conductor and soloist fees, as well as a tape to be edited and mastered. He began to lose hope—until he met Timothy Russell, conductor of the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra. Russell, who wanted his orchestra to perform Lilacs and had ties to Summit Records, agreed to approach the company about recording the work. “In fact, it was recorded the very day after the performance,” Walker says. “That meant I could use something of very good quality.”

He admits that it can be difficult for institutions to make choices when they release such a limited number of CDs. “But again, what I’m talking about is this whole kind of inconsistency. A lot of these orchestras are involved in outreach programs. They make a big thing of Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, and they think that is sufficient. It’s not.” Furthermore, he says, the need to create cultural icons has resulted in the promotion of just a few composers as the American composers.

“Composers such as Copland and Gershwin and Bernstein. Whatever virtues they have in their music, they don’t begin to represent all American music,” he says.

Despite these obstacles, Walker believes that composers today are more interested than ever in creating works that communicate, which has resulted in an enormous range of music available for study and performance. “At the moment, composers have stepped back from their so-called futuristic aspirations—stated so vociferously by composers like [Pierre] Boulez—to the point where they actually feel like they’d like to have an audience,” he says.

The focus of Walker’s own compositions has been with symphony orchestras, where “you get a sizeable audience to hear your music.” He has several post-Pulitzer projects up his sleeve to create more interest in his work, including a “wonderful arrangement” with Albany Records to record his compositions and the standard piano repertoire he played in his concertizing days. Walker tapes everything himself. “I provide Albany with the finished CD,” he explains. “It’s edited and mastered. I simply send it to them with the notes, and we decide on a cover photo.”

Of his recent compositions, Walker is especially proud of Canvas, a complex work in three movements for wind ensemble, five speaking voices, and chorus commissioned by the North Texas University Wind Ensemble. “I’ve also just finished a song that I’m extremely pleased with,” he confides. “Nobody knows about it yet.” The manuscript lies waiting on Walker’s Steinway, a copyist due shortly to pick it up. It is a setting of And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus by the 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Walker tried to set the poem 25 years ago but discarded his effort, as is his habit with works he feels are not up to snuff. Then he met cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s father-in-law, John Hornor.

“[John] is a very fine bass baritone,” Walker says. “He asked me about a year ago if he could commission me to write a song for him. I said that I had this song in mind.”

These days, Walker alternates between composing and practicing for new piano CDs. “Do you want to hear something?” he offers. He is happy to sit down and play, but he’s not particularly interested in performing concerts anymore. “I’m not up to that now. I finally decided I would simply concentrate on recording. It has a more lasting quality. Also, I want to leave—as a pianist—something for those who think of me only as a composer.”

Does Walker have any advice for today’s up-and-coming composers? He raises his finger to his lips, ponders a moment, and replies, “Learn as much as you can about the past, and be critical of what exists in the present.”

Tamima Friedman is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, Daniel Rosenblum ’83, and two daughters.

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