Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist

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Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. By George Walker. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. [viii, 222 p. ISBN 9780810869400. $40.] Illustrations, discography, bibliography, index.

When the library at the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) started in 1990, one of the earliest donations came from composer George Walker, who sent a collection of his published scores. I have never forgotten this act of generosity from someone who could surely understand and appreciate the goals of the CBMR. Therefore, I approached his autobiography with real interest and curiosity. I wish that I could report that Walker's autobiography reflects the same generosity and good will I encountered in 1990.

George Walker is one of the major American composers of the late twentieth century. Born in 1922, he grew up in Washington, D.C., the child of a middle-class black family with Caribbean roots. As a child, he studied piano while attending the segregated schools of Washington and studying as a special student in the junior division at Howard University. He attended Oberlin Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1941 with a degree in piano performance. Subsequent studies at the Curtis Institute led to diplomas in piano performance and composition in 1945. In 1956, he obtained a D.M.A. from the Eastman School of Music. Walker had decided on a career as a concert pianist in a time when there were few African-American pianists on the concert circuit, and he had his share of "firsts," including the first Town Hall recital by a black artist in 1945. He also performed as soloist with several symphony orchestras. He seems to have had a fairly successful career as a concert artist, but when the stresses of a heavy schedule and constant travel threatened his health, he turned to teaching and later to composition, which he had studied at Curtis. He spent 1957-59 studying with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau. He then embarked on an academic career, spending most of it at Rutgers.

Walker is the composer of many compositions that are both successful and admired: his piano sonatas are generally studied, and his Lyric for Strings has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. In 1996 he became the first living black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his piece Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra. Based on a well-known poem by Walt Whitman, Lilacs was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a program honoring Roland Hayes.

Walker's music has been the subject of numerous theses and dissertations, including analyses of his Mass, his Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, and his vocal works, as well as several studies of his piano sonatas. Most of these contain at least rudimentary biographical material, but he has not been the subject of a critical biography or a bio-bibliography, although he certainly deserves one. Walker's standing as a major composer makes his memoir potentially interesting for what it might contain about his music from his own point of view, not to mention the teachers, friends, and colleagues with whom he interacted.

The memoir is a concise, if not downright terse, retelling of his life and career, in which he occasionally discusses his music, especially his reasons for writing certain pieces and the particular issues in composition he dealt with in each piece. For example, he decided to write serial music because other composers did not seem to be following the rules:

  Dodecaphony was acclaimed as the music of the avant-garde. But I was
  cognizant of the freedom that some composers indulged in while
  professing to use this technique. I decided to compose a strict
  serial work for piano. ... I had concluded that the only effective
  strict use of twelve-tone technique would necessarily be a short
  work. (p. 103)

His piece Spatials is a series of brief variations on a twelve-tone theme. …