Editor's Note - Autumn 2022

Late Bloom

By Sudip Bose | September 1, 2022

Because of lingering pandemic anxiety, I did not attend the National Symphony Orchestra’s January performances devoted to the music of George Walker—one of my great regrets in recent months. Walker (1922–2018) is having a moment of rediscovery, of discovery really. He began his artistic life as a pianist, studying at Oberlin and with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Successful recitals and appearances with major American orchestras—he played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra and the Brahms Second with the Baltimore Symphony—foretold a career on the stage. But Walker soon realized, as he wrote in 2009, that one major talent management agency “did not want to promote a black pianist. I had encountered a pressure-resistant stone wall. All that I had done to prepare myself for a concert career was of no avail.”

Studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris nurtured Walker’s interest in composition, and he went on to write numerous accomplished works in a bold, incisive, atonal style that had nothing to do with what he called “the tedious repetitions of the minimalists and the cloying, Wuthering Heights–quality” of film scores. He consciously broke with the “music of the past, music using a distinguishable harmonic language,” while fighting the assumption that a Black composer’s native language necessarily had to be jazz.

In 1995, Walker composed the astonishing Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, a setting of Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The following year, Lilacs won the Pulitzer Prize, with Walker becoming the first Black composer to receive that award. And yet, he wrote, the honor “did not result in an avalanche
of commissions. … No major orchestra in the country attempted to contact me about performing the Pulitzer Prize work or any other orchestral work of mine.” Today, conductors such as Simon Rattle and Gianandrea Noseda are beginning to address this neglect, realizing what the likes of Robert Shaw, Zubin Mehta, and Lorin Maazel figured out several decades ago—that Walker is a major American composer.

In this issue, we celebrate the centenary of Walker’s birth with a new department—Anniversaries.

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