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

The $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, given by the University of Louisville differs from most other prizes discussed here in that it is not earmarked specifically for Americans. It has, however, gone to Americans on many occasions, including John Adams (1995), John Corigliano (1991), and Joan Tower (1990), and has strongly featured European and Asian composers who have lived in America including Tan Dun and Chinary Ung.

First awarded in 1985, it began as a gift from Charles Grawemeyer, a music-lover from Louisville who suggested “if we did something like this perhaps we could find another Mozart.” In fact, no talent has been “discovered” by the Grawemeyer. First awarded to Witold Lutoslawski for his Symphony No. 3, it immediately became an opportunity to augment the income of already established composers.

Any musician or musical organization can submit entries, but composers are not permitted to nominate their own work. Frequently works will be sponsored by publishers and by the orchestra that commissioned a work. The Grawemeyer Award Committee (The University of Louisville composition faculty) appoints a jury of three internationally recognized music professionals, who are normally the previous year’s winner, a conductor, and a critic.

The music director of the Louisville Symphony, Lawrence Leighton Smith was the conductor/jury-member for eight years beginning in the Grawemeyer’s first year. He describes the selection process as being fickle but easy to explain: “It was Charlie’s money, so we ran it his way.”

And “Charlie’s way” meant that non-musicians should be involved the award’s selection. The jurors select up to nine works from the submission pool, which are then given to a lay panel of seven community members–non-professional music-lovers like Charles Grawemeyer himself. They are given a score and tape of the music (“What they do with the score, I don’t know,” says Smith). These amateur panelists, who are distinguished among orchestra subscribers and hold a degree of celebrity in the Louisville cultural community for their participation, select the winning work.

The names of the non-winning finalists are not announced, but jury members find it an interesting litmus test to observe which pieces are selected by the lay panel. The panel acts as kind of “focus group,” and though there are composers of particularly complex, avant-garde music who are repeatedly shunned by the panel, the Grawemeyer does not reflect the assumption that audiences tend towards the conservative. This award has been given to works with a broad range of accessibility, from John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 to Harrison Birwistle‘s The Mask of Orpheus.