Sounds of Amerıca

Gramophone’s guide to the classical scene in the US and Canada

Focus Weighing up the Pulitzer Prize for Music – page I » The Scene Musical highlights from across North America – page IV » Reviews The latest CD and DVD releases – page IX »

Zhou Long accepts the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for

Music for his opera Madame White Snake

Poisoned Pulitzer?

A new CD of Pulitzer Prize-winning works prompts Joshua Kosman to scrutinise the reputation of this controversial award

The definitive word on the Pulitzer Prize for Music was, by some reckonings, delivered by Charles Ives in 1947, when his Third Symphony was honoured nearly half a century after being written. “Prizes are for boys,” he is supposed to have growled as he gave the prize money away. “I’m grown up.”

Not a very gracious response, perhaps (and, unlike most composers, Ives could afford to scorn the money). But ever since its inception in 1943, the prize – given annually along with 20 other awards in journalism and the arts under the auspices of Columbia University – has been the focus of a certain vein of unease and scepticism.

Does it really represent the best that American music has to offer in a given year, or is it merely the outcome of extended bouts of log-rolling and mutual back-scratching? Why do the prize-winning works, year after year, seem to reflect such a limited stylistic spectrum? Is there a good reason why vernacular music – most notably jazz, but also rock, pop and show music – should be excluded from consideration?

There’s no denying that even a cursory glance at the list of Pulitzer-winning scores from the past six decades reveals an uneven line-up. It includes a repertory staple such as Copland’s Appalachian Spring alongside an enigma such as Gail Kubik’s Symphony Concertante. Elliott Carter’s Second and Third String Quartets share the roster with music of such obscure names as John La Montaine, Michael Colgrass and Wayne Peterson.

Yet for all its shadowy sidelights, the Pulitzer remains the most visible and prestigious honour available to American composers of contemporary classical music. The $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, given annually by the University of Louisville, Kentucky, is more lucrative (the Pulitzer pays $10,000) and boasts a more reliable track record, but it’s known almost exclusively to new-music aficionados; prizes given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters have a similarly “insidery” feel. Only the Pulitzer brings fame and glory from all quarters.

“Everybody on my street knows I won the Pulitzer,” said John Adams, who won in 2003 for his memorial to the victims of 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls. “They don’t know I’ve won the Grawemeyer, or any of these other prizes.”

For Chinese-born Zhou Long, who won this year’s Pulitzer for his opera Madame White Snake, the éclat brought by the prize was even more pronounced. “I’m usually regarded as Chinese-American and this is the quintessential American prize,” he said. “This was big news throughout the Asian press; one newspaper called it the American Nobel Prize.” What the Pulitzer doesn’t bring is the guarantee of a firm place in the repertoire, or even frequent performances. If music lovers recognise the titles of some of the victorious works, it’s more likely to be from seeing the phrase “Pulitzer Prize-winning” appended to them, or remembering various trivia snippets (like the fact that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was the first woman to win the prize), than from actually hearing the music played.

So there’s an understandable temptation to believe that buried treasure lies here, waiting to be rediscovered. This seems to be the attitude of Chicago record label Cedille, which has just released