Poster Composer George Walker in California, 1996.
Composer George Walker takes a bow at a performance of his Pulitzer-winning piece, 'Lilacs,' in California in 1996.
Luis Sinco/La Times/Getty Images
Rhapsody in Black

Violist Eliesha Nelson honors the music and memory of composer George Walker

Rhapsody in Black - Elisha Nelson and George Walker

Violist Eliesha Nelson had the pleasure of meeting Pulitzer Prize winning composer, George Walker, a few times during her career. One time, she was invited to his apartment to play his Viola Sonata with him at the piano. The encounter deepened her passion for both Walker and his music.

Eliesha Nelson
Eliesha Nelson
The Cleveland Orchestra

Nelson has been a violist with the Cleveland Orchestra for over 20 years, but it wasn’t until 2023 that she finally had the chance to record George Walker’s music with that orchestra. 

“As a Black violist in a major orchestra, there are not that many of us,” Nelson says. “To be able to have an African-American tell their story through their words, through their pen, is so meaningful.”

George Walker attended Oberlin Conservatory. In 1945, he became the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also the first Black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. 

Even though he was the first Black soloist to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, his life as a concert pianist never took off. Nelson says the racism he experienced had a lot to do with that.

If you look at Walker’s compositions, there’s an arc in how he developed as a musician. As late as 2015, he was still composing music about events in this country which had a strong impact on him. Nelson says this is reflected in his Symphony No. 5 (Visions), a piece heavily affected by the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Walker won a Pulitzer Prize for his piece Lilacs in 1996. Even after receiving the award, it was difficult for him to get any traction. 

George Walker lived to be 96 years old. He died in August of 2018.

“It usually happens that after someone has died that their music starts to be played,” Nelson says. “I just hope that it continues.”


Host: Vernon Neal

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher

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About Rhapsody in Black

Where we turn up the voices of Black artists in the world of classical music, with host Vernon Neal.

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