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

In the classical music arena, where string quartets and orchestras dominate over electric guitars and drum kits, it is easy to forget that the “music industry” also honors composers, many of whom rarely receive recognition from the other organizations mentioned in this article. While the annual awards of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are dominated by the latest pop hit sensations and boomer-generation pop mainstays, the Grammys also provide composers with one of the world’s best-recognized paperweights as well as the chance rub elbows with the pop stars.

Grammy winners are selected annually by the “voting members” of the Recording Academy, a select group within the greater Academy’s paid-membership. There are many categories in which a contemporary composition can win, including “Best Classical Contemporary Composition,” “Best Orchestral Performance,” “Best Chamber Music Performance,” and “Best Classical Album.” These are the categories that include many composers who are concert-hall mainstays. Recent examples of winners in these categories include Richard Danielpour, Leon Kirchner, and Christopher Rouse; in 1997, the Premieres CD of their Cello Concertos played by Yo Yo Ma with David Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra won for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra.” That year, John Adams won Best Classical Contemporary Composition for El Dorado. Steve Reich has won Grammys for Music for 18 Musicians (Best Small Ensemble Performance 1998) and Different Trains (Best Contemporary Composition 1989), and John Corigliano has two Best Contemporary Composition Grammys for his Symphony No. 1 (1991) and his String Quartet (1996). But the award is not the exclusive domain of composers described in the mainstream media as “listener friendly.” Elliott Carter has also won this award for his Violin Concerto, although the recording on which it appeared is currently out-of-print in this country.

While some concert-hall composers have done well earning Grammy awards, this award is primarily for film composers. In fact, their career longevity allows them to eclipse most pop artists in the collection of Grammys.

Henry Mancini won an amazing 20 Grammys, all earned within the twelve years between 1958 and 1970. He earned two for Peter Gunn in 1958, and three years later earned five for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Arrangement (for “Moon River“), Best Performance for an Orchestra, and Best Soundtrack Album for the movie soundtrack.

Just behind Mancini on the list is John Williams, who has 17 but is still earning them with a career that spans over 25 Grammy-earning years as a conductor and composer. His first came for the movie Jaws in 1975, and over the years he has won multiple Grammys for Star Wars (including Best Instrumental Performance), Close Encounters, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, triple-Grammy winning E.T., Schindler’s List, and most recently Saving Private Ryan. Outside of the film industry, he also tied composer/songwriter Randy Newman for 1984 Best Instrumental Composition with his Fanfare and Theme for the XXIIIrd Olympiad at Los Angeles.