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

“Now you know what the first line in your obituary will be,” Pulitzer Prize winners are told upon receiving the award. The $5,000 Pulitzer Prize seems meager when compared to heftier sums offered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Grawemeyer Foundation, but two things have contributed to this prize’s being distinguished above all others: the Pulitzer’s accomplished roster of winners and its widespread recognition outside of musical circles. The Pulitzer is, after all, a prize established by a journalist in 1904 to encourage excellence in writing. The Pulitzer Prize in Music did not come along until 1943, when it was given to William Schuman for his Secular Cantata No. 2, ‘A Free Song.’

The Pulitzer is given to honor a composition receiving its world premiere performance during the year of its award. As a result, the winning works are rarely recorded and sometimes have only received one performance. Such is the case for Lewis Spratlan‘s Life is a Dream (Act II, concert version), which received this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music, after its debut performance only a few months earlier although 22 years after it was composed.

Since the award is so highly visible, it has raised a high degree of speculation on why certain pieces win over others. In retrospect, it can be seen that the Pulitzer rarely recognizes a composer’s best or most famous work. But the Pulitzer is not a lifetime achievement award; it honors new works while they are still fresh. Joseph Schwantner, whose Aftertones of Infinity earned him the 1979 Pulitzer, has assisted in the selection process many times. He explains that the adjudication is not overly political, and that while an entrant’s reputation has a subtle influence on the decision-making process, Schwantner finds the atmosphere to be honest. The jurors convene in what Schwantner describes as an “intense and open environment,” and examine all of the submitted scores: there is no pre-screening process, and any piece premiered that year is eligible.

The list of Pulitzer winners is impressive. It includes many of the greatest composers working since 1943, and honors some of their most celebrated works, including Aaron Copland‘s Appalachian Spring (1945), Gian-Carlo Menotti‘s The Consul (1950), and Jacob Druckman‘s Windows (1972). Some composers, however, win for works which in retrospect hardly seem representative or among their most impressive, and sometimes the Pulitzer committee’s decision is difficult to accept. Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street won the Pulitzer over Carlisle Floyd‘s Susannah, which has become America’s most frequently performed contribution to the operatic stage. Minimalist and “downtown” composers also receive short shrift from the Pulitzer committee: Steve Reich (Different Trains was passed over in 1988 in favor of William Bolcom‘s piano etudes, and Tehillim was premiered in 1981, a year no award was given), Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, and John Adams have all failed to be recognized as have Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, and many other highly-respected composers. Although awarded a posthumous “special citation” in the year of his centenary, Duke Ellington never won a Pulitzer during his life, and the first jazz-influenced work to win this prize did not come until 1997 with Wynton MarsalisBlood on the Fields. Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most popular American figure involved with classical music, also never won a Pulitzer.

Another important question to address, however, is if this award actually helps its recipients more than any other award. It would be easy to assume that such a visible and prominent award would change the lives of its recipients, but this does not seem to be the case. Its recipients seem to fall into two categories: those whose careers are already so well-established that the Pulitzer is incidental to their already strong activities, and those for whom additional name recognition does not greatly affect their ability to gain commissions and performances from top ensembles and presenters.

For Aaron Jay Kernis (String Quartet #2: musica instrumentalis, 1998), whose career was already booming with commissions and performances from leading groups in America and abroad, two benefits emerged. It brought him more opportunities to work with other composers through residencies, and it also reestablished contact with lost friends. But beyond these changes, its primary benefit was internal: it gave him a confidence which invigorated his writing.

Controversy has also surrounded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in other ways. The 1992 panel, who was instructed to recommend three works to the Pulitzer Board, recommended only one work: Ralph Shapey‘s Concerto Fantastique. They unanimously deemed this to be the finest work of the year. The Pulitzer Board, however, did not agree that this work was worthy of their prize, and instead asked the jury to recommend another work. Wayne Peterson‘s The Face of Night was then chosen by the jury and accepted by the board. While this is the only such occurrence in music, it is not unheard of for a decision to be overturned in Pulitzer Prizes for other disciplines.

Harvey Sollberger was on the committee that year, and he suggests that although no reason was given for the board’s rejection of Shapey’s work, their action may have resulted from the jury’s initial refusal to choose works for honorable mention. This was not due to a dearth in compositional quality among the submitted pieces, but rather to a consensus among the panelists that choosing runners-up “devalued” the Pulitzer. He suggests it may be possible that the Pulitzer Board refused Shapey’s work as a rebuff to the jury, who may have tried to assume too much control over the process.

Sollberger believes that the Pulitzer Prize is very important as “something that keeps composers before the public and raises all of us in the field.” He was dismayed to find out about the four years in which Pulitzers were not awarded. Having served on the jury many times, he recalls that the difficulty in selecting a single work is not finding one that is worthy, but in selecting it from all the great works submitted.

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