Composer George Walker

April 10, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: George Walker is with us now from New York. Mr. Walker, first, congratulations!

GEORGE WALKER, Composer: (New York) Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: How did you happen to write “Lilacs?” Tell us the story of “Lilacs.”

GEORGE WALKER: I was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a work for tenor and orchestra to commemorate the tribute that the Boston Symphony Orchestra was going to present in honor of Roland Hayes, the famous black tenor, whose career began in Boston with the Boston Symphony and who was a resident of Boston.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. And how long did it take you to write it?

GEORGE WALKER: I began the work late Spring of last year, and after finding the text which I decided upon the Walt Whitman text–

JIM LEHRER: Now tell us about the Walt–it’s from a poem by Walt Whitman, right?

GEORGE WALKER: Yeah. The poem is, “While Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom.” it’s a poem that consists of 13 stanzas, and the poem is a reflection on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by Walt Whitman. It’s a poem that consists of 13 stanzas. I was commissioned to write a work from eight to ten minutes, and I was not, of course, able to compose a work for–that would include the text for all 13 stanzas, so that did four of the thirteen stanzas. The first three and the–I believe the 13th stanza–to make a work that would have a unified whole primarily because of the fact that within the four stanzas the symbols that appear in the entire work were present–the symbols.

JIM LEHRER: The final piece was about 16 minutes long, is that right?

GEORGE WALKER: Yes, that’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: First performed in February by the Boston Symphony.


JIM LEHRER: And tell us a little bit about you. Now, that was what, your 70th piece of music that you have composed, is that correct?

GEORGE WALKER: No. I’m sure that I composed more music. I have over 70 published works, and most of the music that I have composed has been published. Quite a number of pieces, on the other hand, have been destroyed certainly after–

JIM LEHRER: Are most of these pieces–are they similar to “Lilacs” in they’re for orchestra and for a solo vocalist as this one was?

GEORGE WALKER: No. This is a rather unusual category, and a category of writing a work for a solo vocal part and orchestra. I have written, however, a work that’s called “Poem” for soprano and chamber ensembles that makes use of a small ensemble setting. But my works comprise orchestral works involving full orchestra, works that involve a smaller group, a chamber orchestra, and works for instrumental combinations, but this piece is rather unique for my output.

JIM LEHRER: Do you know, how did it come to the attention of the Pulitzer Prize Committee, do you know?

GEORGE WALKER: Well, the Pulitzer Prize depends on, on submissions and the work was submitted by my younger son, who’s in California.

JIM LEHRER: Terrific.

GEORGE WALKER: And, uh, this was the, the initial process of filing the application, the fee and the photograph–


GEORGE WALKER: –and that sort of thing.

JIM LEHRER: You started playing the piano when you were five years old, is that right?

GEORGE WALKER: That’s correct. That’s when my, my interest and involvement in music began.

JIM LEHRER: And you started–and you trained at the Curtis School of Music, correct?

GEORGE WALKER: I went from high school to Oberlin College and then from Oberlin College to the Curtis Institute, where I studied piano under Rudolph Serkin and composition with Rosario Sclero.

JIM LEHRER: So–did you, did you compose music from the beginning as well? Was that what you–

GEORGE WALKER: I–I didn’t begin to compose until I was 18. I didn’t even attempt to compose. I was primarily interested in pursuing a concert career as a pianist.

JIM LEHRER: And when did the compos–the composing thing happened because of what?

GEORGE WALKER: I became ill in the course of my first European tour, which took me to Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Italy, and England, and I came back to the United States, realizing that I would be severely handicapped in attempting to pursue to appear when I wasn’t physically at my best, and I–after doing some teaching, pursued a doctorate degree at the Eastman School of Music. I went to Paris to study with Nadia Bulenje, where I began to work full-time as a composer.

JIM LEHRER: Did you ever think that you might some day be sitting here or anywhere talking about having won the Pulitzer Prize?

GEORGE WALKER: Well, that’s an aspiration that comes after one certainly becomes familiar with the processes involved in getting performances and opportunities and, and the results that can come from winning competitions.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Does it have a special meaning to you to be the first black to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music?

GEORGE WALKER: Well, the meaning for me is essentially a kind of culmination of the aspiration of–of–success in this particular area, a major prize, and of course it does mean something to me to know that I, I have been selected to win it, and because I am black, and because no other blacks have won the competition, that I’m therefore the first.

JIM LEHRER: Certainly, certainly. Well, again, Mr. Walker, congratulations to you, sir, and happy–

GEORGE WALKER: Thank you so much.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, sir.

GEORGE WALKER: Thank you so much.