Keep Your Ears on the Prize: A Hyperhistory of American Composition Awards

One of the best-known American foundations, the Guggenheim makes up for its relatively small endowment in the way it spends its money: it is exclusively devoted to giving fellowships that permit artists and scholars to pursue their interests for an entire year.

Since its establishment in 1925 it has given over 15,000 awards totaling more than $185 million dollars. 150 to 200 awards are given each year and about seven to nine of them go to composers.

Another reason that the Guggenheim Fellowship is so well recognized is that the Guggenheim name has become synonymous with philanthropy. Meyer Guggenheim, who went from being a street peddler to one of America’s wealthiest citizens, passed his money on to his seven sons, four of whom established foundations: Daniel (aeronautics), Murry (dental science), Solomon (modern art), and finally Senator Simon Guggenheim, who gave his money in the form of fellowships. Simon’s oldest son, John Simon Guggenheim, established the Guggenheim Fellowships as a memorial to his father. The program’s basic premise was quickly in place, that money should be given to artists and scholars who should have complete freedom of action.

Two governing bodies were established, a Board of Trustees, and a separate Educational Advisory Board whose committee would choose the fellows. To this day, the identities of those who choose Guggenheim fellows are kept with strongly guarded anonymity. While this has protected the judges from undue lobbying, it gas also evoked complaints among those who have observed unsavory trends in the selection of fellows.

Nonetheless, the list of Guggenheim-winning composers reads like a comprehensive litany of this century’s most accomplished. Beginning with Aaron Copland, 475 composers have been supported with Guggenheim funds, including Roy Harris, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Samuel Barber, LaMonte Young, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, and others in the fields of classical concert music and experimental jazz. The Guggenheim Foundation was one of the few organizations to support Harry Partch, who received fellowships in 1943, 1944, and 1950.

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