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 The dogmas of the 70s have been replaced by, well, John Adams, who is as much a figure of today’s establishment as anyone.
(read more after the jump)
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.
April 16, 2010; 6:14 AM ET
Categories: random musings | Tags: Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, Pulitzer Prize, Santa Fe Opera
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