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Eye on the prize: the annual Pulitzer post

This week, Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for music. It was an event received with pleasure and a certain degree of equanimity: Higdon and her music are well liked and not particularly controversial, except insofar as some critics have condemned it for being a little superficial. I like her work a lot (in fact, I liked her piano concerto for the NSO a lot more than some), and I also think she won for a good piece: the violin concerto she wrote for Hilary Hahn, premiered in Indianapolis, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played last June. By contrast, John Adams, when he won the Pulitzer for “On the Transmigration of Souls” in 2003, was pretty outspoken both about the limitations of the prize and the fact that he hadn’t won for his best piece.

At the time, Adams was voicing a long-standing outrage at the prize’s failure to reflect the state of American music. In the years since, the music jury has been considerably more conciliatory: not only Adams’s win, but those of Ornette Coleman, David Lang and Steve Reich have helped erode the view of the prizes as the purview of a closed club of insiders, making music nobody else particularly wanted to hear. A shift was inevitable, not so much in protest against the establishment, but due to a change in the establishment itself. The dogmas of the 70s have been replaced by, well, John Adams, who is as much a figure of today’s establishment as anyone.
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The point of such prizes is to honor achievement, keep it in the public eye, and create over time a kind of cross-section of the history of the art or journalism they honor. In this, they are almost guaranteed to fail. The Nobel Prizes are as imperfect a measure of great literature over the ages as the Pulitzers are of music since 1943 (just try wading through Kristin Lavransdatter for an illustration of middlebrow mediocrity); each cycles through different patterns of taste, from middlebrow to highbrow and back.

For all the discussion they provoke every year, though, there are remarkably few efforts to afford them any relevance. The main purpose of the prize seems to be to give a composer a stamp of approval and a year of heightened activity, rather than keeping his or her works in circulation. (Lewis Spratlan’s opera “Life is a Dream” won in 2000 after a workshop performance of Act II, but only this summer, ten years later, is the whole thing actually having its world premiere, at the Santa Fe Opera. The South Dakota Symphony was rare in devoting parts of three seasons to a survey of Pulitzer Prize-winning works.)

So my question is not whether the prizes are worthy. My question is, does anyone recall a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of music that was particularly important to him or her? Which ones do you remember, and why? Ives’s Third Symphony (1947)? Menotti’s “The Consul” (1950)? The floor is open.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 16, 2010; 6:14 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  | Tags: Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, Pulitzer Prize, Santa Fe Opera  
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It probably says something in support of Ms. Midgette's point when I have to go back to 1945 and Copland's "Appalachian Spring" to cite a work that has meant a great deal to me for many years. I have to admit that I would say the same thing about several of Copland's works. My affection for the music naturally increased when I got to meet Mr. Copland many, many years later and even entertained him as a houseguest.

I also like the Piston symphonies and have a sneaking affection for the Gail Kubik symphony that won in 1952, probably because he introduced me to it when the radio station I worked for commissioned him to compose some signatures.

I like what I have heard of Jennifer Higdon's music, but attending concerts has become physically difficult and there aren't many recordings of her work.

Pulitzer would perform a real service if it would underwrite recording its prize winners and get them widely distributed by pricing them at only 3 or 4 dollars to encourage the timid to take a chance.

Posted by: wsheppard | April 16, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Christopher Rouse's Trombone Concerto is really important to me. I only know it from recordings but think it's shatteringly powerful.

Aaron Jay Kernis' second string quartet does a lot for me too (also, alas, only in recording), although I don't like it quite as much as the Rouse.

wsheppard, if you're into trying some Higdon, the best disc of hers I've heard is the Robert Spano/Atlanta Symphony recording of her Concerto for Orchestra and CitySpace. At the local premiere of the violin concerto, Hilary Hahn (the dedicatee) said a recording would be out at some point, and perhaps the Pulitzer will accelerate that.

Though, as noted, Higdon's piano concerto did nothing for me, I really enjoyed the violin concerto; though it's a fruitless exercise for me to say a piece of music is the "best," since I've heard a tiny fraction of music that premiered this year, it certainly seems worthy of wider recognition.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 16, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Certainly Copland's Ballet for Martha (as Appalachian Spring was originally titled) is one of the touchstones of 20th-century American music. Some of my other favorites since then would include Norman Dello Joio's Meditations on Ecclesiastes, a very attractive score; Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms #6 for Piano and Tape, now very much a period piece, but quite engaging; Barber's Piano Concerto, a stunning composition; and Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which has entered the repertoire of many fine singers. (I heard Janet Baker perform this in Carnegie Hall).

Posted by: Lutoslawski | April 16, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

hi anne -

david lang here! so I obviously can point to a pulitzer piece that changed my life - my own. but I want to comment on your post.

the pulitzer (or any prize) has the ability to focus our attention on a particular composer or piece, which is great for the person or piece but not necessarily great for the field. in this way the problem of the pulitzer is not in the prize but in us - paying special attention to one piece a year is not going to keep our field fresh and moving forward. in prizes and in our general conception of music history we do ourselves a great disservice by looking at what we do as a progression of titanic individuals doing great, unique work - the truth is a lot messier. our musical culture is at all times a sum of conflicting ideas that only make sense in their connection to each other. in order to have a healthy musical universe it would be better to reward things that could reveal the larger picture - and foster an appreciation of that larger picture among the public - than just picking momentary winners and losers.

but I can't believe that you used KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER as an example - that's one of my all-time favorite books! it's true that the historical fiction aspects of those books are tiring, but sigrid undset placed her narrative in medieval times to get closer to what was to her a very modern problem. the historical setting, early in the years after norway received christianity, makes her characters' decisions about the competition of faith, tradition, emotion and sex very raw and immediate to them. they don't have 1000 years of juggling their religion in their lives - the roots of their belief in christianity are relatively shallow to them and they have yet to test how far that belief will go. it is essentially a moral book whose historical setting allows it to make its characters' moral choices more stark.

(now, if you are looking for a bad nobel choice you might want to consider mikhail sholokhov, although I am sure you will now hear from irate fans of his style of cinematic socialist realism....)

in a way, our disagreement over sigrid undset makes my earlier comment - unset won the nobel prize not for a towering accomplishment of unique virtue but for her ability to highlight issues important to the readers of her day. the role of religion in one's life, frankness about sex, empowered women - her prize is as much a comment on the literary concerns of her contemporaries. the unfair thing about any prize is that it makes us think for a moment that our culture is made in punctuated moments by giants who walk the earth. with the pulitzer and all such prizes we have to remind ourselves that it's not.

of course, that we are even talking about sigrid undset shows that these awards serve a purpose - they keep her name and the issues present at the moment of her writing alive. that's worth something, isn't it?

Posted by: modernpain | April 16, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

It'll probably change when I eventually win one (hardy har har) but I have to say I greet the annual announcements of the Pulitzers with more a 'oh, that's nice for them' than any real excitement. I also quite like the annual scandal for a slow Tuesday afternoon (Next to Normal!), but even then I don't consider it a fabulous indication of the current theatrical scene at the best of times. Something like the Macarthurs I find far more fascinating, because they always come as a wonderful surprise and dig up the most extraordinary collection of people.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 16, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

“paying special attention to one piece a year is not going to keep our field fresh and moving forward” (David Lang)

Recent prize-winner David Lang makes an important point, and that is why I think that it is also important, as part of this conversation, to focus on musical institutions that are keeping the classical music field fresh and moving forward, and those that are not.

While New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all have major new classical music programs – Contact, Green Umbrella, Wet Ink – Washington, D.C. – to speak locally – has a slowly renewing National Symphony Orchestra that over an upcoming two month period will be performing major new works by living composers Guillaume Connesson, Stephen Sondheim (the NSO salutes him on his 80th anniversary), John Adams (The Wound-Dresser, The Dharma at Big Sur, and Dr. Atomic Symphony), Erkki-Sven Tüür (Symphony No. 4 "Magma"), and Oswald Golijov (Azul, with Yo Yo Ma). Not bad, and as it should be.

The Kennedy Center also allows local embassies – such as those of Finland and France – to offer new classical music by living composers at the Millennium Stage, as it did last week when the KC and the French Embassy featured new classical works for violin and piano by living composers Raminta Serksnyte and Richard Dubugnon.

However, the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society are now – together – trying to suppress living classical music in the Nation’s Capital. They are letting their yards go completely to seed, and ruining our now beautiful and forward-moving Capital City.

The Washington National Opera has commissioned only four new operas in the last 44 years -- Bomarzo, Goya, Dream of Valentino, and Democracy. Today, the sadly reduced WNO doesn’t even stage the ‘second productions’ of American operas that it promised a decade ago. American opera is in deep recession nation-wide despite the Santa Fe Opera, and the opera this summer that the Pulitzer Prize winning composer Lewis Spratlan spent $75,000 of his own money initially producing.

The Washington Performing Arts Society has grown just as pathetic as the WNO, to the point where even the musically conservative Anne Midgette tried to press the equally musically conservative WPAS President Neale Perl as to what happened to the works by living composers that the tax-payer supported organization used to feature each year. You won’t find David Lang or Christopher Rouse or a single living composer on next season’s WPAS orchestral programming. And Neale Perl is proud of the fact!!

Why should the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society be different in nurturing the works of living composers than the National Symphony Orchestra or the KC Millennium Stage?

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 16, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

"Why should the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society be different in nurturing the works of living composers than the National Symphony Orchestra or the KC Millennium Stage?"

Because their structures and finances are totally different? You can't compare WPAS or WNO to the Millenium Stage which, by its nature, can be much more responsive (and cost-effective) to contemporary programming that WPAS or the WNO who often have to lock in their programs years in advance.

We both want WNO to program more American works (hell, I'd take a recent work from anywhere in the world), but they're hardly unique in the US for 1) having no money and needing to fill seats and find donors as a an act of desperation and 2) the DC audiences have been resistant to even a relatively accessible 20thC work like 'Grimes'- it would be foolhardy for the longetivity of the company to program anything but the softest of Heggies for 2014 in the current environment without longterm investments in audience development, for which we're back at point 1- money.

I look forward to the snaketime1 Foundation for Contemporary American Opera underwriting a season of new works in, as you put it, the Nation's Capital

Posted by: ianw2 | April 16, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

The Washington National Opera doesn't need longterm investments in audience development, it needs consistently to program works by living composers and librettists, including living American composers and librettists as Placido Domingo and the company promised Congress and the American people.

As a taxpayer, I resent the Kennedy Center forgoing unpaid back rent by the so-called Washington National Opera when the company can't even keep its own promises to Congress and to the American people.

I look forward to ianw2 giving up on his dreams for being a composer of American music theater, and going back to the Yale University School of Management and learning non-profit corporate governance and finance -- and NOT marketing and 'longterm investment in audience development'.

And shouldn't the Washington Post be investigating the Washington National Opera's unpaid back rent to the Kennedy Center, or would that interfere with Anne Midgette assembling a portfolio of "thoughtful" music criticism for her to self-submit to the Pulitzer Committee later this year?

And ianw2, you are free also to self-submit your music theater work to the Pulitzer Committee -- or maybe you already have.

Onward to lunch.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 16, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

"it needs consistently to program works by living composers and librettists, including living American composers and librettists "

And if nobody comes? How long will the company last then? Suddenly popping two American works in a six (if we're lucky) work season with no accompanying development or foundation for an audience...? Santa Fe is an unusual case, but I think a good model could be what is happening in Minnesota as something that could (eventually) apply to DC. Their selection of works doesn't excite me, but the overall concept does. Gockley was the vanguard of new works during his tenure in Houston, but has also (publicly) recognised what works in Houston doesn't necessarily play in San Francisco- but I think the new Minnesota model is much more transferable, and allows a 'slow burn' of demystifying contemporary opera.

"going back to the Yale University School of Management and learning non-profit corporate governance and finance "

Interestingly, you're not a million miles away from what I did for my post-graduate.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 16, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Ianw2, audiences will come to see American opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House. But maybe not 'Peter Grimes' -- their major loss -- or 'Two Boys'.

And are you advocating now that the Washington National Opera program two new operas out of each six opera season? Now, that is a tea-partier’s idea!!

I am only advocating one American opera out of five or six – as the Washington National Opera promised Congress and the American people. Washington audiences don’t need twelve more performances of Porgy or twelve more performances of Butterfly this soon again after these works were recently staged here, given that the Virginia Opera is also doing those works the same seasons.

And yes, we know what you did for post-graduate down under. [Not really. -- Vy govorite po-russki?]

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 16, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Nice post, Anne, and I love the conversation it's generated. For me, the Pulitzer winners that matter most—"Appalachian Spring" aside—are the Carter quartets (No. 2 in 1960, No. 3 in 1973), Wuorinen's "Time's Encomium" (1970) and, most especially, David Del Tredici's "In Memory of a Summer Day" (1980) and David Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion" (2008).

For the most part, the Pulitzers have honored a great many worthy composers in the wrong year and for the wrong piece. But as an award that potentially brings classical music even briefly to the attention of a broader public, the Pulitzer is a more creditable barometer than, say, the Grammies. (But I know I don't have to tell YOU that.)

Posted by: SteveSmithTONY | April 16, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

The Carter string quartets, for sure.

I love "Little Match Girl Passion" (hi, David Lang, if you're still reading, and thanks for the thoughtful literary analysis); don't care for "Tempest Fantasy" on record (might like it better live); can't bear "Appalachian Spring."

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | April 16, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

My apologies snaketime for going overboard on American opera in a hypothetical season.

Da, nemnogo moi drug zmyeya! No ya znayu russki-zachistki...

Dragging this back to the original question... I would back the Copland, Ives Crumb, Adams and Lang works from the list of Pulitzer winners. I love Reich, but it sadly felt more like an over-due 'get 'em before they're dead' Oscar, when he should've got it yonks ago.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 16, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

There are a few previous awards that seem to stick out as works (Adams, Lang, Kernis, Corigliano, Rouse, Schwanter, Carters, Copland, Ives), but for the most part it seems to be more for the composer rather than the work.

I do think the Grawemeyer Award has done a better job of recognizing major works than the Pulitzer - Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, Adès' "Asyla", Adams' Violin Concerto and Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" will all be remembered not only as representative works within each composer's repertoire but also as representative works of the late 20th century (a moniker that one would be hard pressed to give to a good portion of the Pulitzer-winning works).

Posted by: robdeemer | April 18, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

Roger Sessions' "Concerto for Orchestra" is my pick. A marvelous recording is available - among the best things that Ozawa did in Boston.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 19, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I have just been handed a note … “In response to your request, I have found that while Neale Perl’s Washington Performing Arts Society will feature no orchestral music by living (or recently living) classical composers next season – as pointed out earlier by Anne Midgette in her Washington Post article -- the comparable visiting international orchestras will be performing the following works at Carnegie Hall, New York City, at the concurrent times next season, 2010-2011:


GYORGY LIGETI Atmospheres;


JOHN ADAMS Harmonielehre;

JAMES MACMILLAN Violin Concerto (NY Premiere);

TOSHIO HOSOKAWA Woven Dreams (NY Premiere);

ANNA CLYNE rewind;



SIR HARRISON BIRTWISTLE Violin Concerto(U.S. premiere)"

Also, while I tend to agree with Rob Deemer, above, regarding the Grawemeyer Prizes [for music, political science, psychology, education and religion], it should be pointed out that Peter Lieberson’s ‘Neruda Songs’ is an early 21st century work (2005) (whereas Lewis Spratlan’s ‘In Memorium’ - recently released - is a late 20th century work (1993)).

Back when it was musically alive and culturally relevant, the Washington Performing Arts Society programmed Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts. It was one of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s last public performances before her death some months later from cancer – at the age of fifty two (six years after one of her sister’s death also from cancer).

Mr. Lieberson's “Neruda Songs” is his setting of five Spanish sonnets by Pablo Neruda, each a reflection of a different aspect of love.

Today, WPAS President Neale Perl must consider such matters too difficult for his dwindling, aging audiences.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 19, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

“After nearly two years of being drenched in red ink, Citigroup [today] provided the strongest signs yet that the troubled bank is beginning to recover as it reported a $4.4 billion profit in the first quarter [2010]. … In the last two years, Mr. Pandit has been embarking on an ambitious strategy to transform Citigroup from a sprawling financial supermarket into a streamlined global bank, catering to multinational and high net-worth customers.”

Sounds like Kenneth Feinberg’s new Washington National Opera and Neale Perl’s new Washington Performing Arts Society, doesn’t it?

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 19, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Snaketime, if you believe reports that Citi's solvent, I've got a bridge for you at an irresistible price.

Posted by: JohnRDC | April 21, 2010 6:41 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: snaketime1 | April 21, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse

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