George Theophilus Walker has died not having the achieved the success he hoped for by being the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
“I probably got more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize winner,” he told the Washington Post in 2015. “But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. My publisher didn’t have sense enough to push. It materialized into nothing.”
Mr. Walker died August 23 at a hospital in Montclair, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. He was 96.
Walker, a native of Washington, D. C., was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition “Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra,” which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Conducted by Seiji Ozawa, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered the composition on February 1, 1996. During his life, Mr. Walker composed more than 90 works.
Walker was the first African American to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He earned a degree in 1945 in piano and composition, the institute posted on its website.
That same year, he made his professional debut in a solo recital at New York City’s Town Hall. In 1956 he became the first African American to receive a Ph. D. from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He also studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copeland’s former teacher. Walker played with orchestras around the world and he was a Fulbright Fellow.
He later joined Rutgers University’s faculty where he became chairman of the music department. He taught music from 1969 to 1992.
He is survived by a son and three grandchildren.