George Walker’s “Lilacs”
Notes by TŌN violist Batmyagmar Erdenebat
George Theophilus Walker was born a century ago in Washington D.C., and with his mother’s commitment to piano lessons at an early age, he was admitted with a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory at the age of 14. He later attended Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied both piano and composition and graduated as their first Black student. He set out on a career as a soloist, and in 1945 he made his recital debut at Town Hall in New York, followed by a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra as their first Black instrumentalist. However, his solo career was not anything he pictured: “Those successes were meaningless, because without the sustained effect of follow-up, my career had no momentum. And because I was Black, I couldn’t get either major or minor dates.” He gave concerts in seven different European countries, but his agent had difficulty booking more performances, and the only explanation given was that “a Black pianist playing classical music would be an uphill battle, we can’t sell you.”
Back in the Curtis days Walker studied composition with Rosario Scalero, who also taught Samuel Barber, and later Walker continued his composition studies with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Aaron Copland and Phillip Glass. After seeing some of his earlier works, Boulanger encouraged Walker’s interest in composing in his own style. From the mid 1950s, his academic career led him to several different educational institutes back in the U.S. as a doctoral student and professor, such as the Eastman School of Music, Smith College, and Rutgers University at Newark, from where he retired in 1992. Those years are considered as his most active composing period.
In 1996, on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he composed Lilacs, a setting of Walt Whitman’s 1865 Lincoln elegy ”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Walker was the first Black composer to be honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Lilacs was described by the Pulitzer committee as a “passionate, and very American, musical composition with a beautiful and evocative lyrical quality.” Each movement feels like a contrast from one another, but the whole cycle responds to the portrayal of the text. The originality of Walker’s composition style is embodied in the orchestration, while the lyrical vocal line soars above the orchestra.