An American Outsider

Jay Nordlinger

May 15, 2017, Issue

George Walker (Frank Schramm)

Montclair, N.J. — George Walker greets me at the door, smiling and dapper. I figured he would be (dapper). Mr. Walker is a gentleman of the old school. I’ve never seen a photo of him when he wasn’t wearing a coat and tie. He is dressed that way now, in his own home. I have a feeling he wouldn’t welcome a guest any other way.

We are in Montclair, N.J., a town some 15 miles from Manhattan. “I’ve lived in this house since 1969,” Mr. Walker says. “I was the first black person in this neighborhood.” I ask whether he ever had any problems. No, he says.

Mr. Walker has many “firsts” to his credit. He was the first black person to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, the famous conservatory in Philadelphia. He was the first black person to earn a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music, the famous conservatory in Rochester, N.Y. He was the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. And so on.

Obviously, Walker is a musician — a composer and pianist. That’s the right order, too. You can see it in the title of his autobiography (2009): “George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist.” There is something else about the title: the word “American,” unqualified.

“I feel strongly about that,” Mr. Walker tells me. “I’ve always disliked being called ‘African-American.’” As he elaborates on this, he points out that his music is dotted with American tunes: hymns, spirituals, pop standards, and the like. You may not hear them — they are planted in this classical music. But they’re there.

This summer, Mr. Walker will mark his 95th birthday. His latest composition is his Sinfonia No. 5. It will be played by the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the 2018–19 season. Mr. Walker spends much of his time doing three things: seeking commissions; seeking performances; and seeking recordings. That is the lot of a composer.

Speaking of D.C., he was born and raised there. When he was born — in June 1922 — Warren G. Harding was president. Mr. Walker’s father, also named George, had come from Jamaica. He was a doctor: a graduate of Temple University’s medical school, in Philadelphia. Mr. Walker’s mother, Rosa, was American-born and a high-school graduate. She worked at the Government Printing Office.

Both Walkers observed standards. They did not even use slang. Not even “okay,” which was spreading like a weed.

Mr. Walker knew his grandmother — his mother’s mother — very well. Her name was Malvina King. She had had two husbands. She lost the first one when he was sold at auction. The second had died. Mrs. King herself was an escapee from slavery. One day, young George asked her about it — the experience of slavery. She said one thing: “They did everything except eat us.”

In 1946, Mr. Walker composed Lyric for Strings, his best-known piece. It is dedicated to his grandmother.

He went to Dunbar High, the famous school in Washington — the most famous high school for blacks in all of America. It produced a who’s who of people, including Edward Brooke, the first black senator (popularly elected). Mr. Walker says that some of the teachers at Dunbar were very good; and some were not so good. He really valued his classmates.

One teacher he unquestionably valued was Clyde McDuffie, who taught Latin. They spent one year — fourth-year Latin — on the Aeneid. Mr. Walker can still recite the famous opening: “Arma virumque cano . . .” Also, the poem impressed on him the importance of duty above personal desire.

He graduated from Dunbar at 14. Did his father pressure him to follow in his footsteps as a doctor? Not at all. “He never brought up the subject.” Young George would be a musician. He went to Oberlin College in Ohio, which had been admitting blacks for a hundred years. George was the youngest student in the college, 15.

At Oberlin, he heard many of the greatest musicians of the day, including Rachmaninoff. He also heard Horowitz. “He was a pianist who made me aware of what the piano could do,” says Mr. Walker. He was not always on. Like many of us, Mr. Walker heard him great and heard him shockingly bad. But when he was on — there was hardly anything else like it.

There was another pianist at Oberlin, by the way: Frances Walker. Mr. Walker’s younger sister. Later, she would be a teacher on the same campus, the first black woman to become a full professor at Oberlin. She still lives there.

From Oberlin, Mr. Walker went to Curtis, where one of his teachers was Rudolf Serkin, a major pianist. Mr. Walker remembers everything Serkin said. But he did not say much. And he did not know some of the scores, says Mr. Walker, as well as he thought he did. For composition, Walker had Rosario Scalero, who had also taught Barber.

One day, Samuel Barber returned to the school in his uniform: the uniform of the Army Air Corps. He served Wednesday tea with Mrs. Bok, the founder of the school.

Walker had an orchestration class with Gian Carlo Menotti. “It was a joke,” he says. I respond, “He didn’t give you much?” Mr. Walker says, “He didn’t give us anything.” Walker pretty much taught himself orchestration.

He is nothing if not blunt in his opinions. At one point, we’re talking about Kreisleriana, the Schumann piece. “If you listen to that pianist from South America,” he says, rubbing his eyes in disgust. The object of his disgust, he cannot remember the name of. “Martha Argerich?” I hazard. He nods his head. “Terrible,” he says. “Terrible. She has no idea about the piece at all. No sense of the rhythm, no sense of the phrasing . . .”

In 1945, Walker played Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy. The maestro was not very nice to very many people. “Was he nice to you?” I ask. No. Ormandy should at least get points for consistency.

Warmly supportive of young Walker was Nadia Boulanger, the famous composition teacher in France. She had taught anyone and everyone, including a slew of Americans: Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter. She taught Walker, too. “You’re a composer,” she told him — a high compliment, from that source. She confirmed for him that he was on the right track. “Just keep going,” she said.

In the middle of the century, and for a long time thereafter, there was tremendous pressure on composers to conform to a modernist fashion: a fashion epitomized by Pierre Boulez, the famous Frenchman. Did Walker ever feel such pressure? “No,” he says. “I’m an outsider. I don’t have connections to composers. Even black composers.”

I ask him who, among his colleagues, is underrated. He cannot give me an answer. I ask who is overrated. He says, emphatically, “Boulez.”

Walker had a busy career of teaching, along with composing and playing. He taught at several institutions, mainly Rutgers, in New Jersey, where he was chairman of the music department. In 1996, he wrote Lilacs, for voice and orchestra (setting Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”). It was this work that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Since its premiere, it has barely been performed at all. This is tremendously frustrating for a composer, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer.

Mr. Walker was married to a fellow pianist, Helen Walker-Hill. They had two sons, Gregory and Ian. Mr. Walker’s father kept mum about medicine. What about Mr. Walker? Was he laissez-faire with his sons? No. “I’m the micromanager!” he says. Gregory is a violinist; Ian is a playwright. Gregory is a champion of his father’s music, including a violin concerto, written for him.

In his 90-plus years, George Walker has written 90-plus works. Interesting how that has worked out. In 2008, I interviewed Elliott Carter on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. (He lived to 103.) He was diligently working. Mr. Walker, too, works. “When you’ve been doing something for so long, there’s nothing else you can think of doing,” he says.

I ask, “Are there musical ideas in your head all the time?” No, he answers. “I try not to think about music except when I sit down to compose.” That both surprises and impresses me. I think of a modern word: “compartmentalization.”

We talk about race and the impact of discrimination. Mr. Walker says that a big problem is tokenism: People perform a work by a black composer, pat themselves on the back, and think, “Well, that’s done.” Also, black pianists may well be asked to play Rhapsody in Blue — instead of a concerto by, say, Mozart. (Note that Rhapsody in Blue was composed by a Brooklyn-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family’s original name: Gershowitz.)

Mr. Walker has many gripes about the music business, as everyone does. But he has no gripes about music. He had his first piano lesson at five, 90 years ago. And he loves music as much as he ever did. “The love of music permeates me,” he says. “The love of good music.”

Is there any music he is feeling especially close to now (apart from his own)? Well, it depends on his mood, he says. Often, he will go back to some piece he has known for many years — and discover something new in it. Why didn’t I understand this initially? he’ll think. But he does now. And “my respect for great music is never-ending.”