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

Two lucky composers are chosen each year as Rome Prize winners. Each of these composers pursues independent projects atop the Janiculum, the highest hill within the walls of Rome. There, they are given time to create in a stimulating atmosphere, with an award valued at $60,000.

Composer Edward MacDowell, who was impressed by the existing facilities for architects, painters, and sculptors, suggested the creation of a music program at the American Academy in Rome in 1905. His suggestion was not realized until 1921, when Howard Hanson, Leo Sowerby, and Randall Thompson were invited as the first composition fellows.

It was originally stipulated that no instruction was to be offered at the Academy. Instead, fellows were expected to spend their time composing and visiting musical centers in Europe (a special arrangement was made for free tuition at the Paris Conservatoire). In 1947, however, a program was established for the invitation of six to eight senior artists and scholars for periods of two to four months. These residents are former Rome Prize winners who pursue their own work, act as informal mentors to the fellows, and present their work in concerts and lectures. The residents also benefit from the time they spend with each other, and the Academy’s Celebrating a Century publication recounts Leo Smit‘s thrill at associating with Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Harold Shapero, Lukas Foss, Alexei Haieff, George Rochberg, Ulysses Kay, Gail Kubik and Frank Wigglesworth.

In the past, relationships were established with local string quartets and orchestras, particularly through devoted help from local conductor/composer Ottorino Respighi. European publishers and festivals also took notice of Academy fellows and residents. In 1931, radio broadcasts were made a regular feature of Academy concerts. Most of these opportunities seem to have been lost over the years, and financial problems in the 1980s decimated the Academy’s public presentations. Since then the Academy has been working to reestablish similar opportunities. Each year, there are several concerts that include music by current and previous fellows and residents by Italian groups.

The Rome Prize has also acted as a tremendous indicator of future success. Robert Beaser attended the AAR in 1978 at the age of 24, and Aaron Jay Kernis was only one year older when he stayed there in 1985. The age of composers has been steadily increasing, though, as composers are increasingly being chosen more on the basis of accomplishment than promise. Most new Rome Prize winners are post-doctoral students or early-career professors.