Saturday, August 22, 2015 In life’s coda, master composer George Walker has a symphony in mind

Composer George Walker, a Washington, D.C. native, who was the first black composer awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music at his home. (Frank Schramm)

Music composition pages in the home of George Walker. (Frank Schramm)

Walker, 93, who was raised in Northwest Washington, has been working on a symphony for four months, writing down and erasing note after note, testing them on his Steinway piano. (Frank Schramm)

George Walker (b. 1922) 
has a website at
and is featured at

Photographer Frank Schramm had just moved to Montclair, N.J., when he heard one of Walker’s pieces playing on the local public radio station. He sent Walker an e-mail, not having any idea where he lived. Turns out, they were in the same town. Walker dropped Schramm a tape. The photographer began taking pictures. That was 2004. Schramm, who has continued photographing the composer, provided the Washington Post with these images. No writer’s block

Born: 1922
First piano lesson: 1927
First recital, Town Hall, New York City: 1945
First black tenured faculty member, Smith College: 1961

First Pulitzer Prize for African-American in composition: 1996.
There are no deadlines. There is nothing to prove. George Walker, 93, writes music because he wants to. “I don’t know what relaxation is,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer admits. Walker also talks about his many chores as he sits in his living room in Montclair. Two high-end (Polymer) floor speakers stand a few feet away. The Steinway is in the next room. So are the sheets of music he’s working on and a stack of CDs. “I do everything. I do my own cooking. I do my laundry. I do my cleaning.” Oh, and that symphony. Walker has been working on it for four months. The D.C. native – he grew up in the northwest section of the city - isn’t sure who will perform it. First, Walker has to finish it. Why keep working? “I want more people to hear my work,” he says. “I want people to get acquainted with my music.”

He works most days, sitting at the piano. “I’m not like Brahms getting up at 5 o’clock and having a cup of coffee. But I’m thinking all the time about possibilities. About what I can use. And I spend very little time actually writing because I don’t like to revise. If I wrote three notes one day, the next day I might erase two and leave one. It’s very intensive, especially now. I’ve come to the point where I can find something and say, ‘Aha, I’ve already done that.’
“There’s always a possibility of finding something. It’s basically the choice that one makes. The pitch. The rhythm. It also has to do with the harmony. Trying to figure out why one particular chord sounds right and what note should change.”
Early lessons

Miss Mary L. Henry was his first piano teacher. Walker started taking lessons at the age of 5. “The piano was in the parlor. It was an upright. Most everybody had a piano. It was simply a matter of finding a teacher to teach. She came in and once a week, I would have a lesson. When you’re a kid you have to be told that — to practice. The famous story about Stravinsky when he was composing ‘The Rite of Spring’ in the apartment and there was a kid outside shouting to him — ‘That’s wrong’ — and Stravinsky was saying, ‘No, this is right, this is right, son.’ Same thing happened to me. When I first started out, my mother would be in the kitchen and I’d be fumbling around on the piano and she would say, ‘That’s not right.’ She said, ‘Don’t do it again.’ ”

On Sherman Avenue

Walker’s father was a Jamaican immigrant who graduated from medical school at Philadelphia’s Temple University in 1918. His mother worked in the Government Printing Office after graduating from high school. “Our household was extremely busy because my father had his office downstairs. The street, Sherman Avenue, was a lovely street at the time with arching trees. That’s one of the major changes that I really feel strongly was a result of the effort to focus on business by widening the street. To allow buses to go without ever stopping. Straight down this whole avenue.” 

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