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

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

Adam Silverman Photo by Melissa Richard I used tell people at parties that I flew helicopters, even though I have never ridden in one and don’t know anything about piloting. But the story would draw people in, and by the time they discovered my lie, they would be primed to disbelieve the truth: that I… Read more »

Written By

Adam Silverman

Adam Silverman
Adam Silverman
Photo by Melissa Richard

I used tell people at parties that I flew helicopters, even though I have never ridden in one and don’t know anything about piloting. But the story would draw people in, and by the time they discovered my lie, they would be primed to disbelieve the truth: that I write classical music. A commonly heard response from these people would be that they didn’t know that classical composers still lived, as if this career had gone the way of obsolete careers like Dodo Trainer or 8-Track Repairman.

But composers do exist, and we have established a community to preserve and celebrate our art. One of the ways that we assert our importance is by decorating each other with prizes, both honorary and monetary. There are a wide variety of honors available to composers, and although most are passed from one musician to the next, a few come from outside and reassure us that we are valued by our greater culture.

The best known of these awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which is given for an outstanding American work receiving its premiere that year. Since the Pulitzer is largely a prize for journalists, it receives great media attention, and places the names of composers before a vast literate public. Like the Pulitzer, the Grawemeyer Award recognizes an outstanding recently premiered composition. The Grawemeyer, however, is an international prize based in America, and it comes with a different kind of prize: $200,000.

Only two awards exceed the Grawemeyer in sum. The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year salary that can come to a composer in any stage of their career and ranges from $30,000 to $75,000 depending on the recipient’s age. It comes with absolutely no strings attached and, like the Pulitzer, can be received by people in many fields. The Charles Ives Living is a new award established by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to boost under-recognized composers with $225,000 over three years that may be supplemented by commission fees and fellowships but not with a regular salary. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, in addition to the Ives Living Award, gives a great range of composer awards that totaled $170,000 this year. There are AAAL awards for composers in all stages of their careers in concert music and musical theater.

Like the Ives Living, other awards exist to give composers uninterrupted creative time. The most famous of these fellowships is the Rome Prize, which has been a coveted opportunity for composers since 1921. A similar program was begun this year at the American Academy in Berlin, which promises to become another major opportunity for composers to live and work abroad. And, of course, the Guggenheim Fellowship continues to be an important award which is difficult to attain despite the fact that it is available to several composers each year.

For those whose music receives commercial success through recordings, it is possible to win Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Two awards give $50,000 to recognize a composer’s entire body of work. The Herb Alpert Award from California Institute for the Arts is given annually to early and mid-career composers, and generally represents the more experimental end of the aesthetic spectrum. The William Schuman Award from Columbia University is given irregularly and honors the lifetime achievement of “Uptown” conservatives, all of whom have taught at Juilliard with the special exception of Gunther Schuller.

Many people begin their careers as award-winning students, and there are many competitions in which young composers can begin to establish their name throughout the musical community. Some of these, regrettably, are established by ensembles who charge hefty entrance fees and offer in return a meager performance or small prize to the winning composition. There are two organizations, however, who have long histories of presenting student awards for the sole purpose of encouraging young talent. BMI and ASCAP both have parallel awards programs which have gotten scores of composers off to a good start. ASCAP also has a range of commissions which function as awards and give early-career composers their first performances by classical and jazz orchestras.

Kyle Gann, who has been a longstanding advocate for experimental “downtown” music, addresses the subject of awards in his article “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music“, which astutely reveals the narrow bias of some of these prizes. It is evident that certain composers who share aesthetic preferences are in charge of determining what music is deserving of praise. In most cases, prize winners return as future jurors, and a cycle is established which reinforces certain traditional musical qualities and similarly influences American concert life.

It should be kept in mind, however, that awards rarely make a career. A few heart-warming tales are told about the cascading effects of winning several awards in quick succession, but ultimately a composer must stand on his or her musical talent and performance record. For the most part, these awards offer only money and sometimes temporary support to facilitate the creative process.

Incidental to the awards themselves are the contacts that are made between emerging and established composers. Martin Bresnick, who later would win the Charles Ives Living and the Berlin Prize, began his career as a Rome Prize applicant. At 26 years of age, his application was evaluated by guest panelist Toru Takemitsu, who not only helped convince the panel to send Bresnick to Rome, but also went out of his way to recommend him for a teaching position at Yale. More than 25 years later, Bresnick now heads the department there.

And 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis, whose career began by winning many student composer awards, tells a sobering story about his first major orchestra performance. At 23 years of age, he was selected by Jacob Druckman to have his work Dream of the Morning Sky for soprano and orchestra read by the New York Philharmonic. It was a “rehearsed reading,” and an audience of orchestra subscribers attended. Microphones were given both to Kernis and to conductor Zubin Mehta, who communicated throughout the rehearsal about appropriate tempi and uses of the orchestra. Kernis felt that Mehta was “testing” his conception of the work and belittling his work, and at one point when Mehta complained about Kernis having obscured the soprano with the orchestra, Kernis courageously replied “Maestro, you’re just playing it too loud.” The audience spontaneously burst into applause, and many of the orchestra members lauded Kernis afterward for his brave stance.

Members of the press who attended were amused by Kernis’s bravado, and this event became national news: the story of this courageous young composer standing up for what he wrote was reported in articles in Newsweek, Time, High Fidelity/Musical America, and The New York Times.

Kernis felt that success was just around the corner, but over the next few weeks, he received no calls from managers, no calls for orchestras wishing to commission him, and eventually the celebrity of this event subsided. “It taught me how the classical music world works for
composers.” He relates. “At the time, I thought this was a great thing… but it was just a piece on an orchestra concert… I had to pick up and keep going.” So although Kernis’s career has been distinguished with many great prizes, commissions and honors, these have come about in a slow, cumulative fashion, through tenacity and devotion to the creative process. “Being a composer is not about what comes from outside,” he says. “It is about the need to create, the need to express.”

So whether one is elated from winning or discouraged by losing, it may help to embrace the sentiment of Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright and 1996 Alpert Award recipient: “What I realize is that, for all the awards I get and all the public and private praise and all the boosts–it always all comes down to the work at hand… The day-to-day sitting in front of the blank page or the blank screen–the day-to-day difficult difficult difficult working out of each moment, each word, each line.”

But for those of you who have been poring over this article seeking clues on how to procure these coveted awards for yourselves, I have discovered simple rules for success…

Write great music and be recognized for it. Or write lousy music and fool jurors. This answer may be disappointing, but certain pieces of common-sense advice may prove helpful to aspiring winners. Perseverance counts for quite a lot. Juries change, styles come in and out of vogue, and your music (hopefully) keeps getting better. Above all, keep writing and making sure that your music is heard. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Remember the example of Conlon Nancarrow, the reclusive composer who, after years of composing unperformable music for player pianos, won a MacArthur Genius Award. Remember Charles Ives, whose music was rarely heard until he was in his late 60’s. Remember Melinda Wagner, who was repeatedly nominated for an American Academy of Arts and Letters award for ten years before finally receiving it.

And if you still don’t win anything, jurors must be jealously fearful of your talent.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters‘ elite pantheon includes many of the greatest contributors to intellectual life in America in the fields of music, art, and literature. Limited to 250 individuals, membership is awarded only upon the death of previous members. No monetary prize accompanies the induction, but being elected to the Academy is certainly one of music’s greatest honors.

Membership in the AAAL primarily involves distribution of the awards listed below, which are given by nomination and cannot be applied for. Members can nominate awardees in any discipline, but a panel of composer members determines the music winners. In 2000, this group included Robert Ward, Jack Beeson, Andrew Imbrie, Ezra Laderman, Ned Rorem, George Perle, Joan Tower, and George Walker. Winning any of these awards involves gaining the respect of this panel, the membership of which changes only slightly over time.

If you covet these awards, there are forty-four Academy composers to whom you may plead your case, but be forewarned that pestering members may not be helpful. This is strictly an “insider’s” award, and the Academy stresses that it should not be contacted with requests for applications.

AAAL awards are named for their benefactors, and many of them are in the name of Charles Ives, whose wife donated all royalties earned from performances of his music to the Academy. From this initial donation came three award-categories, which are given to a total of eight composers each year, and one extremely lucky composer every third year.

The Charles Ives Living Award

The newest Academy award for composers is the Charles Ives Living, awarded triannually. Initiated in 1998, this is the largest monetary award given exclusively to an American composer. At $225,000, it is exceeded in sum only by the MacArthur Fellow Program (the “Genius Award”), which is available to individuals in any area of expertise. The first recipient honored with The Charles Ives Living was Martin Bresnick, a Yale professor who, though extensively honored with commissions and prizes, had primarily been known as a teacher whose prodigal students included David Lang, Michael Torke, Julia Wolfe, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and many other composers who came to the fore in the 1980’s and 90’s.

The Ives Living’s mission seems perfectly tailored to Bresnick. The award was established to offer a professional boost to mid-career composers of under-recognized mastery. Ives himself was the inspiration for this award, since he composed without substantial acclaim while earning his living as an insurance executive.

The terms of this award stipulate that the honored composer must give up (or take temporarily leave of, in Bresnick’s case) their day-job, and devote their energies to composition and the advancement of a musical career. For Bresnick, this has included the publication of his catalog by Carl Fischer, completion of four major works, the CD release of his Opera Della Musica Povera, a residency at the American Academy in Rome (he was a Rome Prize winner in 1976), and soon a residency at the American Academy in Berlin. Business has improved dramatically for him as well, and his music has begun to be performed widely throughout America and abroad.

The prize, then, suggests that the American Academy of Arts and Letters bestows their faith on the recipient’s talent and motivation, and Bresnick suggests that this makes one “hold yourself to the highest standard.” While the Pulitzer and Grawemeyer prizes are “crowns” that honor accomplishment, the Ives Living is a “Grail” which, once attained, leads to greater things.

And how does an institution like Yale react when the head of its department is whisked away by this honor? Bresnick commends Yale for its generosity and commitment to seeing him return, but suggests that this might not be the case for future winners. The idea of a three-year leave of absence is likely to be too much for some institutions, and the honored composer may have to quit their job altogether.

Like the other prizes awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, there is no application for the Ives Living. Strictly chosen by nomination, recipients must be known by members of the Academy.

Academy Awards in Music

Four composers receive this award of $7,500, which “honors lifetime achievement and acknowledges the composer who has arrived at his or her own voice.” Each of these composers also receives $7,500 toward the recording of one work. The 2000 Academy Award winners were Sebastian Currier, Libby Larsen, David Rakowski, and Melinda Wagner. Not an honor given freely, Wagner persevered through several nominations over a span of ten years before finally receiving this award.

Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond Award

Inaugurated in 1993, this award is generally given to a composer in mid-career. Past winners include Robert Aldridge (2000), David Stock (1999), and Wendell Logan (1998).

Goddard Lieberson Fellowship

Started by the CBS Foundation in memory of Columbia Masterworks founder Goddard Lieberson, this award goes the composers who have finished their formal education (and are thus ineligible for the Ives Scholarships) but are still in the early stages of their careers. Some notable past winners of this award include Michael Daugherty (1991), Peter Lieberson (1984), Robert Xavier Rodriguez (1980), and Gerald Levinson (1979).

Walter Hinrichson Award

The C. F. Peters Corporation, who turned over the selection process to the Academy in 1984, established this award. The Academy recommends the work of one composer each year to be published by Peters, generally a small chamber composition. For some composers, this has been the first in a series distributed by this publisher, including Ross Bauer, Richard Festinger, and Martin Boykan. Ursula Mamlok, who won this award in 1989, had already been published by Peters for many years. More commonly, though, this will be the composer’s only work in the Peters catalog, and few winners of this award have made commercially successful contributions to Peters.

Charles Ives Fellowships

Annually, two composers in mid-career win this $15,000 award, which was the first established by Harmony Ives. The 2000 winners were Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez and Gregory T.S. Walker.

Charles Ives Scholarships

This award goes to eight young composers who each receive a $7,500 scholarship. These composers are typically earning Masters and Doctoral degrees at elite northeastern music schools and, since they have not yet had time to establish public careers, are frequently students of Academy members.

Richard Rodgers Award

Established by the renowned composing partner of Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, the Richard Rodgers Award goes not to a composer but directly to the staged reading of a work for musical theater. One to five winners are selected each year, depending on the jury’s bent. If one shows outstanding promise, the entire award can be given to one musical. If four or five show equal merit, then smaller awards will be given to each. The jury also has freedom to not award the entire available sum, which could be as much as $100,000. The staged readings take place in New York City, and they are arranged directly by the Academy.

It may be hard to believe that so much good has been brought to the arts by the composer of “Spanish Flea,” but Herb Alpert (founder of Tijuana Brass and the “A” from A&M Records) has provided one of the largest annual awards given to an American composer. At $50,000, these awards are funded by a non-profit, private foundation established by Alpert to support a range of programs in education and the arts.

Established and first given in 1995 at The California Institute of the Arts, the Alpert Award is one of the newest awards for composition and is designed to recognize the work of artists who are “particularly responsive to the complex, challenging and fertile role of the artist in society.” In practice, this means that the award goes especially to composers who work outside the mainstream. Those who deal with improvisation, digital media, and performance art are more likely to win this award. The first recipient was saxophonist/composer James Carter, who was only 26 years old at the time. Since then Alpert Award winners have included composer/harpist Anne LeBaron, Chinese/American composer Chen Yi, and Pamela Z, who combines voice, motion and electronics in her live performances.

Like the awards given by The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Alpert Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals. Instead, the Alpert Awards have established a selection process in which The Alpert Foundation makes special efforts to give marginalized artists a chance by drawing judges and nominators from a diverse pool that balances geography, gender, and artistic style. The primary criterion for selecting these panelists is that all must be open to “the new.” Once chosen, they are instructed to choose a composer with a significant body of work, a vital voice, an impressive record and future promise. They are also asked to consider how the applicant’s art influences and reflects contemporary culture.

Each year, ten people serve as anonymous nominators. None of these people is affiliated with Cal Arts or with the foundation, but is chosen to represent diverse fields within art music; critics, presenters, teachers, and composers generally comprise this panel, and few are ever chosen to nominate again. Each of these ten nominators selects three composers, and these thirty are invited to apply for the award. Each composer receives $100 to cover the cost of preparing application materials and work samples.

The final panel is made up of three people who are considered to be specialists in contemporary art music. While this panel is typically composer-heavy (past judges include Martin Bresnick, Leroy Jenkins, and Julia Wolfe), it generally includes performers with exceptional devotion to contemporary music (pianist Ursula Oppens, Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington), and composers with performing backgrounds (conductor/composer John Adams, accordionist/ composer Pauline Oliveros). Ben Johnston, who participated in the 1999 panel, lauds the process, saying that “this was the most objective decision group in which I have yet participated, and I must compliment the Alpert Foundation upon its aims and policies.”

Although the Cal Arts community is not involved in the selection of award recipients, they reap the benefits of this program through residencies with winning composers. These have included classes, presentations, performances, and more depending on the recipient.

The newest fellowship of its kind, the Berlin Prize was first awarded in 1999 to Laura Schwendinger and is based on the example set by the American Academy in Rome. Located in a villa on Lake Wannsee, the American Academy in Berlin is a short train ride from the center of Berlin. The Berlin Prize is offered in many fields, and other residents include Hollywood Bowl conductor John Mauceri, visual artist Jenny Holzer, and poet Henri Cole. Next year there will be two Berlin Prize composers: Martin Bresnick and Betsy Jolas.

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 opp
ortunities. 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.

In addition to the Morton Gould Awards for young composers, The American Society for Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) also provides several honors in the form of commissions and performances.

The ASCAP Foundation/Rudolf Nissim Prize was created by a substantial bequest from the man whose first accomplishment at ASCAP was the establishment of a “Serious Music Department” for the licensing of concert works. The $5,000 prize is given annually to an ASCAP composer’s work for orchestra, concert band, or other large ensemble which has not been professionally premiered. In addition to awarding prize money, ASCAP works on the composer’s behalf by providing supplementary funds for the premiere of the winning work. The jury for this award changes each year, and is made up of conductors who have included Paul Dunkel (American Composers Orchestra), Harold Farberman (Hartt School of Music), Bradley Lubman (SPIT Orchestra, Steve Reich and Musicians), and Mischa Santora (New York Youth Symphony).

Every few years, The ASCAP Foundation Commissioning Project honors distinguished ASCAP members past and present by commissioning young composers to write music for performances in venues suitable for each honoree. The most recent awards were in honor of the late Jacob Druckman, whose composition career was matched by his devotion to his students at Yale. Three of his former students, Stephen Burke, Eric Zivian, and Carolyn Yarnell, were commissioned to write orchestral works in Druckman’s memory, which were then premiered by the Seattle Symphony with Gerard Schwarz conducting. As young composers are chosen for their association with those being honored, applications are not accepted for these commissions. Previous honorees have included Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Morton Gould.

And for the jazz composers who are so frequently ignored by other composition prizes, ASCAP offers the ASCAP/IAJE Commissions. Like the Commissioning Project, this prize honors a different composer each time. The 2000 commissions are being presented in honor of Louis Armstrong’s centenary. Two composers are selected, one an internationally prominent jazz composer, and another an emerging jazz composer who has not yet reached his or her thirtieth birthday. The prizes are $7,500 for the established composer, and $3,000 for the younger composer, and the works for jazz orchestra are premiered at the annual International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in New York City.

Many of today’s best-known composers initiated their careers winning student awards from BMI and ASCAP, two of America’s performing-rights organizations. More than any other awards, these endorsements have acted as impressive indicators of potential for success. Of course many active composers never win these awards, and many who win them are never heard from again, but the ASCAP and BMI award rosters contain many of the world’s most distinguished composers, all recognized by these organizations before the age of 30.

Student composer awards can be among the most valued by professional composers. Aaron Jay Kernis, who won student awards from both ASCAP and BMI, values the encouragement they provide at this crucial point in one’s career. He remembers that winning these prizes gave him his “first sense that being a composer had some meaning and resonance.” He felt that winning these awards made him aware of the musical community, which mitigates the solitary aspects of composing.

The BMI Student Composer Awards

Identifying the talents of composers under the age of 26, the BMI Student Composer Awards have been the first international recognition for many of the most active and prominent composers today. Composers like Kernis, George Crumb, John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, Philip Glass, Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, and William Bolcom all received BMI Student Composer Awards before their 26th birthdays.

Entrants are required to apply using a pseudonym; the composer’s name must be found nowhere on the musical score, and the pseudonym is only associated with the actual name after the award’s selection. Although the award is given primarily for musical merit, the prize for compositions deemed equally worthy goes to the younger composer.

The BMI Awards Chairman is Milton Babbitt, who has served in that capacity for over a decade. While he chairs the selection, he does not vote. Two rotating groups of judges, a preliminary group of three and a final jury of five assume that responsibility.

Judges are given scores and are told the age of the composer. The preliminary panel, which often includes composers Chester Biscardi, David Leisner and Bernadette Speach, spend 40 to 60 hours examining each work individually. Since no tapes are submitted, works are judged from the manuscript alone. The first panel then meets for one full day to narrow approximately 400 manuscripts down to about 35 to 50 which are sent to the final jury. The final jury’s membership changes from year to year, but it is typically made up composers from New York and around the Northeast. The 1999 jury members were Robert Beaser, Steven Mackey, Donald Martino, Tobias Picker and Gunther Schuller. They also meet for a full day and determine winners.

In addition to Award Chairman Milton Babbitt, BMI Concert Music Director Ralph Jackson coordinates the BMI Student Composer Awards. Jackson’s own composing experience gives him a special perspective on this job: he was a BMI Student Award winner.

“Actually, when I won the Student Composer Awards for the first time in 1976,” Jackson recalls, “my taxi from the airport ran into a bus somewhere between Newark and Manhattan and I broke my ankle. I was so excited to be in New York for the first time and to win the award that I didn’t realize it was broken until 3 days later when I returned home to Texas!” Since the award includes an all-expense-paid trip to New York to attend the awards ceremonies, this is the first visit to New York City for many young composers.

When asked how the BMI prize benefits composers, Jackson frankly replied that “no prize makes or breaks a career. However, these prizes have often given encouragement at a very early age, and I think that has been important, financially and emotionally, to many of our winners. Often, our winners comment that previously unsupportive family members have come to value their plans to pursue study and careers in music after they’ve won a BMI Award.”

The ASCAP Foundation / Morton Gould Young Composer Awards

One of several awards offered by ASCAP, the Morton Gould Young Composer Award distributes $20,000 amongst about 20 composers. With an application pool of approximately 500 scores, this award shares many of the same applicants with that of BMI, and ASCAP stipulates that works which have previously won awards may not receive theirs.

The age of eligibility for ASCAP winners extends up to 30, and they have many very young applicants. Frances Richard, ASCAP’s Director of Concert Music, is passionately concerned about the integrity of this award, and works to make the most out of the selection process. For young applicants who show great promise but lack the technical finesse to win the award, she has contacted parents to help arrange instruction and advice for career development.

Like BMI’s Student Composer Awards, the Morton Gould Awards are pre-screened (“three long, grueling days,” says Richard) to reduce the pool by about one-fifth. The composers of the remaining 100 scores are deemed “finalists,” and are notified as being such when their materials are returned. The final jury meets for two days. Not only are they given the scores, but they also receive the original list of 500 works, and can ask to see any scores that had previously been rejected.

Unlike BMI, The Morton Gould Awards do not use pseudonyms to shield the composer’s identities from the judges. Richard insists, however, that the judging is completely fair, and that ASCAP only chooses judges who will act impartially. She was equally passionate about not corrupting the prize by attempting to determine the best way to win it. Every effort is made to collect a jury which shuns nepotism, understands musical concerns, and is unbiased by stylistic preference.

ASCAP/SEAMUS Commission and Recording Prize for Young Composers

One of the few awards earmarked for electronic-music composers is the ASCAP/SEAMUS Commission and Recording Prize for Young Composers, which ASCAP presents in cooperation with SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. For composers who are “on the cutting edge of electronic technology,” this prize includes a modest honorarium for a new electro-acoustic composition, a stipend for copying and material costs, a plaque, a performance at the next SEAMUS National Conference, and a guaranteed recording on the SEAMUS Compact Disc Series.

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 ex
clusive 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.

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.

One of the best-known American foundations, the Guggenheim makes up for its relatively small endowment in the way it spends its money: it is exclusively devoted to giving fellowships that permit artists and scholars to pursue their interests for an entire year.

Since its establishment in 1925 it has given over 15,000 awards totaling more than $185 million dollars. 150 to 200 awards are given each year and about seven to nine of them go to composers.

Another reason that the Guggenheim Fellowship is so well recognized is that the Guggenheim name has become synonymous with philanthropy. Meyer Guggenheim, who went from being a street peddler to one of America’s wealthiest citizens, passed his money on to his seven sons, four of whom established foundations: Daniel (aeronautics), Murry (dental science), Solomon (modern art), and finally Senator Simon Guggenheim, who gave his money in the form of fellowships. Simon’s oldest son, John Simon Guggenheim, established the Guggenheim Fellowships as a memorial to his father. The program’s basic premise was quickly in place, that money should be given to artists and scholars who should have complete freedom of action.

Two governing bodies were established, a Board of Trustees, and a separate Educational Advisory Board whose committee would choose the fellows. To this day, the identities of those who choose Guggenheim fellows are kept with strongly guarded anonymity. While this has protected the judges from undue lobbying, it gas also evoked complaints among those who have observed unsavory trends in the selection of fellows.

Nonetheless, the list of Guggenheim-winning composers reads like a comprehensive litany of this century’s most accomplished. Beginning with Aaron Copland, 475 composers have been supported with Guggenheim funds, including Roy Harris, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Samuel Barber, LaMonte Young, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, and others in the fields of classical concert music and experimental jazz. The Guggenheim Foundation was one of the few organizations to support Harry Partch, who received fellowships in 1943, 1944, and 1950.

Best known as the “MacArthur Genius Award,” the MacArthur Fellowship Program offers fellows an income over five years. This salary currently ranges from $40,000 to $75,000 per year, and is determined by the individual’s age. In some years, the five-year stipend can be as much as $500,000. Comprehensive health insurance is also included in this award, a consideration that is not given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in their Charles Ives Living Award. The MacArthur Foundation describes this award as being “enough money for the recipient and family to live on, but not necessarily in luxury. It represents a kind of seed money or venture capital for intellectual, social, and artistic endeavors.”

Not only given in music, this award regularly honors scientists, historians, poets and novelists, artists and composers, and people working in public service. Many composers have been honored alongside those in other fields, and part of this award’s distinction is that fellows are recognized as making outstanding contributions to society as a whole.

Composers who have received this elite honor include Meredith Monk (1995), Ornette Coleman (1994), Ali Akbar Khan (1991), John Harbison (1989), Ran Blake (1988) and Conlon Nancarrow (1982).

MacArthur Fellows are chosen by a group of more than 100 anonymous nominators across the country in a range of academic and professional fields. They are asked to propose extraordinarily creative and promising individuals who are at points in their careers when a fellowship could make a marked difference, and they are asked to consider “the likely benefits of the award for the good of society.” The program operates under no fixed schedule, and it typically selects between 20 and 40 fellows each year. There are no requirements associated with the award, and recipients need not report their creative work to the MacArthur Foundation.

When a fellow is notified of their selection as a MacArthur Fellow, it is often a complete surprise. Since the foundation has a staff that collects all necessary material, the process is completely independent of the candidate. The MacArthur Foundation considers it best for individuals to remain unaware of their nomination status since there is nothing they can do to enhance their prospects.

“Now you know what the first line in your obituary will be,” Pulitzer Prize winners are told upon receiving the award. The $5,000 Pulitzer Prize seems meager when compared to heftier sums offered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Grawemeyer Foundation, but two things have contributed to this prize’s being distinguished above all others: the Pulitzer’s accomplished roster of winners and its widespread recognition outside of musical circles. The Pulitzer is, after all, a prize established by a journalist in 1904 to encourage excellence in writing. The Pulitzer Prize in Music did not come along until 1943, when it was given to William Schuman for his Secular Cantata No. 2, ‘A Free Song.’

The Pulitzer is given to honor a composition receiving its world premiere performance during the year of its award. As a result, the winning works are rarely recorded and sometimes have only received one performance. Such is the case for Lewis Spratlan‘s Life is a Dream (Act II, concert version), which received this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music, after its debut performance only a few months earlier although 22 years after it was composed.

Since the award is so highly visible, it has raised a high degree of speculation on why certain pieces win over others. In retrospect, it can be seen that the Pulitzer rarely recognizes a composer’s best or most famous work. But the Pulitzer is not a lifetime achievement award; it honors new works while they are still fresh. Joseph Schwantner, whose Aftertones of Infinity earned him the 1979 Pulitzer, has assisted in the selection process many times. He explains that the adjudication is not overly political, and that while an entrant’s reputation has a subtle influence on the decision-making process, Schwantner finds the atmosphere to be honest. The jurors convene in what Schwantner describes as an “intense and open environment,” and examine all of the submitted scores: there is no pre-screening process, and any piece premiered that year is eligible.

The list of Pulitzer winners is impressive. It includes many of the greatest composers working since 1943, and honors some of their most celebrated works, including Aaron Copland‘s Appalachian Spring (1945), Gian-Carlo Menotti‘s The Consul (1950), and Jacob Druckman‘s Windows (1972). Some composers, however, win for works which in retrospect hardly seem representative or among their most impressive, and sometimes the Pulitzer committee’s decision is difficult to accept. Gian-Carlo Menotti’s
The Saint of Bleecker Street won the Pulitzer over Carlisle Floyd‘s Susannah, which has become America’s most frequently performed contribution to the operatic stage. Minimalist and “downtown” composers also receive short shrift from the Pulitzer committee: Steve Reich (Different Trains was passed over in 1988 in favor of William Bolcom‘s piano etudes, and Tehillim was premiered in 1981, a year no award was given), Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, and John Adams have all failed to be recognized as have Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, and many other highly-respected composers. Although awarded a posthumous “special citation” in the year of his centenary, Duke Ellington never won a Pulitzer during his life, and the first jazz-influenced work to win this prize did not come until 1997 with Wynton MarsalisBlood on the Fields. Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most popular American figure involved with classical music, also never won a Pulitzer.

Another important question to address, however, is if this award actually helps its recipients more than any other award. It would be easy to assume that such a visible and prominent award would change the lives of its recipients, but this does not seem to be the case. Its recipients seem to fall into two categories: those whose careers are already so well-established that the Pulitzer is incidental to their already strong activities, and those for whom additional name recognition does not greatly affect their ability to gain commissions and performances from top ensembles and presenters.

For Aaron Jay Kernis (String Quartet #2: musica instrumentalis, 1998), whose career was already booming with commissions and performances from leading groups in America and abroad, two benefits emerged. It brought him more opportunities to work with other composers through residencies, and it also reestablished contact with lost friends. But beyond these changes, its primary benefit was internal: it gave him a confidence which invigorated his writing.

Controversy has also surrounded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in other ways. The 1992 panel, who was instructed to recommend three works to the Pulitzer Board, recommended only one work: Ralph Shapey‘s Concerto Fantastique. They unanimously deemed this to be the finest work of the year. The Pulitzer Board, however, did not agree that this work was worthy of their prize, and instead asked the jury to recommend another work. Wayne Peterson‘s The Face of Night was then chosen by the jury and accepted by the board. While this is the only such occurrence in music, it is not unheard of for a decision to be overturned in Pulitzer Prizes for other disciplines.

Harvey Sollberger was on the committee that year, and he suggests that although no reason was given for the board’s rejection of Shapey’s work, their action may have resulted from the jury’s initial refusal to choose works for honorable mention. This was not due to a dearth in compositional quality among the submitted pieces, but rather to a consensus among the panelists that choosing runners-up “devalued” the Pulitzer. He suggests it may be possible that the Pulitzer Board refused Shapey’s work as a rebuff to the jury, who may have tried to assume too much control over the process.

Sollberger believes that the Pulitzer Prize is very important as “something that keeps composers before the public and raises all of us in the field.” He was dismayed to find out about the four years in which Pulitzers were not awarded. Having served on the jury many times, he recalls that the difficulty in selecting a single work is not finding one that is worthy, but in selecting it from all the great works submitted.

VISIT NewMusicBox‘s Sonic Museum of the Pulitzer Prize in Music

One of composition’s larger awards, the $50,000 William Schuman Award is administered through Columbia University. Given irregularly every few years, it has gone to William Schuman (1981), David Diamond (1985), Gunther Schuller (1989), Milton Babbitt (1992), and Hugo Weisgall (1995). The elusive nature of this award is such that almost no administrators or faculty at the Columbia Music Department or School of the Arts know that it exists, and even Babbitt, who also sat on the Schuman panel in 1995, could not refer me to someone in charge.