Reflections on the Pulitzer Prize

Reflections on the Pulitzer Prize

When pianist Robert Levin called me in Italy bringing us the news about the Pulitzer Prize, I tried to remain calm in an effort to simulate mature equanimity—but it was no use. The exhilaration trumped all restraint.

Written By

Yehudi Wyner

Yehudi Wyner
Photo by Michael Lovett

Before 1997 I never gave winning the Pulitzer Prize any thought. But after my Horntrio was a finalist I allowed myself to think how nice it would be to be selected for the award. When Piano Concerto, Chiavi in mano, was submitted, I hoped I had a chance but did not hold my breath. Working in France and Italy during the past weeks (March 10th to April 25th) put me outside the normal channels of information, and I was sure the time for a decision had long since passed. So when the news came, the surprise was stunning.

Driving back from Florence late at night, we arrived at the ancient farmhouse we’ve been privileged to occupy since late March. The house, surrounded by olive trees and grape vines, is totally isolated. It was very dark. As we fumbled with the keys we suddenly heard the hoarse low grunts of a creature that could only be a wild boar. Inside the house the telephone was ringing. Terrified, we managed to unlock the front door and rushed to the phone. The voice at the other end was quivering with barely controlled excitement. It was pianist Robert Levin, bringing us the news about the Pulitzer Prize. I tried to remain calm in an effort to simulate mature equanimity, but it was no use. The exhilaration trumped all restraint.

The initial surprise and excitement, the avalanche of affectionate goodwill, the joyous exclamations of all those involved in the realization of this work—soloist, conductor, orchestra, management, publisher, recording engineer, et al.—the media coverage and press reaction, the blast of publicity, all of those converged to create an aura of significance around the event. My family has overwhelmed me with love and joy, especially my wife, Susan Davenny Wyner, and of course my children—Isaiah, Adam, and Cassia—and my brother David and sister-in-law Katherine. I do not believe this is because of “the success.” I think it is because they sense that the Pulitzer will precipitate a broader and deeper understanding of my work. Certainly this reflects a long-sustained hope we have all held.

One of the most affecting things has been the response of fellow composers and performers. That my music has been able to speak to them means a lot to me. In general the outpouring of congratulatory sentiment has been overwhelming. Connections, dormant for as many as 50 years, have been renewed. The open warmth of the greetings has given me great pleasure, and I can’t wait to follow up on some of these old friendships.

My hope is that the prize will stimulate curiosity, and that the curiosity will lead to active engagement with the music for listeners and performers alike. I want my music to be heard and received with an involvement akin to what I feel and imagine as I write it. It is a music which reflects emotional and physical states of mind and motion. It is not a music which proposes a theoretical structure nor does it restrict itself to a pure systematic esthetic. It is music which seeks to embrace as broad a gamut of experience as I am able to organize in a given musical framework. It is music of non-verbal narrative, often dramatic in its contrasts and (dis)connections. It is music that does not seek to avoid the influence of all the music I have heard and loved and played and conducted and studied. It permits expression of the raunchy as well as the refined, the trivial as well as the tragic. These statements should not suggest that my music is a collage of references and quotations. Far from it. The references are transformed to reveal something new about the material. These allusions are rarely deliberate or intentional. Curiously they often emerge as intrusions, and, through unconscious processes, reveal connections with the work at hand. They often produce the most potent expressive moments in the music, always surprising me. I believe that whatever originality my work may have lies in its process of transformation and the significance of unpredictable juxtapositions.

Chiavi in mano is simply a continuation of some of the things I’ve been doing for many years. As I’ve said elsewhere, I want my music to be direct, active, and clear, to present a simple surface which belies the inner complications, to appear improvisatory even while the constructive context is controlled and complex. I think Chiavi in mano is very personal and very public at the same time. It truly reflects my musical personality. While I do not like talking about technical matters, I can say that the inner structure of the concerto is very tight and coherent even though the flow of the music seems natural, almost improvisatory. I aspire to this kind of balance in all my compositions.

As for whether or not it deserves the Pulitzer Prize, what in fact do we deserve, what can we claim is coming to us? The reception by colleagues and audience is a powerful affirmation which bypasses the notion of “deserve.” I am also very fond of this year’s other finalists, Chen Yi and Peter Lieberson, both of whom are outstanding composers. I find their music eloquent, individual, exciting, and lovable.

The jury this year seemed quite different, more varied than usual. In the past, most jurors tended to be classical composers with the addition of an occasional critic or writer on music or a musician from the theater or popular music. In fact, I only knew one of the jurors personally, Bill Bolcom, whose music I greatly admire. I served on two Pulitzer juries in past years and found the ethics of the group exemplary. The process is very difficult. There are many works to review, time is limited, and the need to remain open and receptive requires strenuous effort. Styles vary, the scale of the compositions ranges from solo sonatas to full length operas. There are an astonishing number of expert composers out there; technical standards are high. How to determine relative value (with consideration of past history to boot) becomes a daunting task. What is remarkable is how much agreement is reached in the end despite the profusions of styles, despite the immense variety of submissions and the individual predilections of the jurors.

A number of people have been involved in the creation of Chiavi in mano. First among these is Robert Levin who inspired the piece in the first place and was the astonishing piano soloist in its first performances. Robert Spano conducted the Boston Symphony with clear command of the narrative, and the orchestra responded with fire. The powers behind the scene—James Levine, Anthony Fogg, and Mark Volpe of the Boston Symphony and Susan Feder of Associated Music Publishers—all played significant roles.

I am grateful to them, grateful for a life in music, grateful for the achievement of any creative act, grateful to be embraced by family, by colleagues who have responded to my work through many years, and now grateful for the honor of having been selected for the Pulitzer Prize.