Pulitzer Prizes in Music

Note: Although Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in other fields from 1917, 1943 is the first year for the award in music. Also, special awards went to George Gershwin in 1998 and Duke Ellington in 1999.

The Pulitzer Prize is an award for lifetime achievement as well as recognition for a single, great piece. Sometimes, a work is so influential as to direct it to this arena; however, most of the time, the winners seem to be the result of unseen or draconian politics and Eastcoast prejudice. "Music that is good for you," on many occasions will take center stage, perhaps as the result of a conscience of self criticism from modernist judges. Of course, in recent years political correctness, the new warm and fuzzy mantle of fame, has generated a slew of famous artistic nonentities, or crossover artists which do not write real concert music.

The Prize has been awarded for many years before music garnered any attention: it is too bad that one was not awarded in 1939, when Samuel Barber with his Violin Concerto, Roy Harris and the monolithic Third Symphony, or Copland's western ballet, Billy, the Kid would all be in contention. It would then be like in 1940, where William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and Mark Van Doren all won in their respective literary genres.

Well: here it goes, my totally biased and irreverent commentary on the alleged "great" works of the last 60 odd years and their composers.

1943: Secular Cantata No. 2 A Free Song, by William Schuman

This is an unimportant work by one of the most ambitious, but talented composers coming out of the U.S. Giving the award for the Seventh Symphony, a pseudo-modernist but extremely well crafted work of in-your-face Americanism (or the earlier Second Symphony) would be more appropriate.

1944: Symphony No. 4. Opus 34, by Howard Hanson

Hanson's "Requiem Symphony" never achieved the popularity of the "Romantic" (No. 2, written 13 years earlier), but it is a good, solid piece; and, probably Hanson was getting the prize for the earlier work.

1945: Appalachian Spring, by Aaron Copland

Copland's ballet for Martha Graham, particularly in the chamber version, stands as one of the great masterpieces in this list. It has influenced scores of younger composers, dancers, and general listeners, alike. Even in his entire catalog this work stands out as one of his finest.

1946: The Canticle of the Sun, by Leo Sowerby

A piece of squirrel droppings, this artistic toxic waste just caught the ears of a desperate crew. I defy you to name another piece by Sowerby.

1947: Symphony No. 3, by Charles Ives

This symphony is probably one of Ives' least innovative works, yet it retains a kind of naive charm. No doubt, the board saw Ives as an important force, wanted to honor "lifetime achievement," but didn't want to scare the old ladies.

1948: Symphony No. 3, by Walter Piston

This is a big, sassy, and energetic Americanische Sinfonie, in the best sense of the term. Piston's Sixth Symphony is probably a better work, but by the time of its composition he was out of favor.

1949: Music for the Film Louisiana Story, by Virgil Thomson

Bend over, everybody: film composers are "artists," too. Of course we have to pick a concert composer who did a film. Thomson was probably getting it for the influential Four Saints in Three Acts, written 1927-28.

1950: The Consul, by Gian-Carlo Menotti

This opera was running on broadway and won Critics' Circle awards as well. Perhaps this is the last time that a piece with popular appeal was honored by classical musicians. Although the style of the music seems dated, there are so many effective dramatic devices (like the letter translation scene in Act II) and the strongest libretto of Menotti's entire career.

1951: Giants in the Earth, by Douglas Moore

More droppings, this time from an elephant. Moore was a very power hungry and evil man who tried to be the Al Capone of Eastcoast music. This is his reward.

1952: Symphony Concertante, by Gail Kubik

This is an OK piece by a solid, B+ workman. If you got your house plans from Sears Roebuck, they would fill the bill, but not inspire. This piece is the cinder block model.

1953: No award

1954: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, by Quincy Porter

Another dated noisemaker from Sears.

1955: The Saint of Bleecker Street, by Gian-Carlo Menotti

Although the music of this gem is not up to The Consul or The Medium, his oddly paced shocker from 1946, as drama it is worth a Pulitzer.

1956: Symphony No. 3, by Ernest Toch

This piece is likely to be the most underrated work on the entire Pulitzer list. If you can get by the self-conscious sonata thing, you will be treated to a work of rare power by a composer who was probably more at home in the world of film.

1957: Meditation on Ecclesiastes, by Norman Dello Joio

Get out your handkerchiefs: this sanctimonious bomb would not even keep the "sweet old ladies" awake; in desperation, they would be driven to turn off their hearing aids.

1958: Vanessa, by Samuel Barber

This is a wonderful piece and far better than Anthony and Cleopatra from the 60's. It still sounds fresh, and the drama is "real."

1959: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, by John LaMontaine

Who is this guy? Maybe he is Fran Wrubel Kazui in heavy disguise.

1960: Second String Quartet, by Elliott Carter

Droit de Seigneur number one (DdS). Number two is String Quartet No. 3, awarded the Pulitzer in 1973: equally boring but five times as complex.

1961: Symphony No. 7, by Walter Piston

See 1948 commentary.

l962: The Crucible, by Robert Ward

This is a very conservative piece which is a good stretch of theater. Miller's play takes on a new dimension. Milton Babitt should have won for Philomel.

1963: Piano Concerto No. 1, by Samuel Barber

This concerto is one of the pillars of American repertoire and has actually made it out of the Pulitzer bin into the concert hall.

1964: No award

1965: No award

1966: Variations for Orchestra, by Leslie Bassett

Bassett's big wind ensemble piece from that same time is really a better work, but both are the usual sound and texture noisemakers which enamoured jaded academics in the 60's.

l967: Quartet No. 3, by Leon Kirchner

Allegedly, this one involves grand larceny, in that Leon stole electronic sounds from Mort Subotnick and put them into this piece. Irrespective, this piece has brass balls and is practically wrapped in the American flag in its propulsive energy and moxy. A better piece is the composer's Duo Concertante from 1947, before he sold out.

1968: Echoes of Time and the River, by George Crumb

The muse of history is still worshipping at the Crumbian shrine. I remember being blown away by this piece and Crumb's style at that time (I met him at Penn when I was a grad student there, but I never learned a thing from him). To my ears this is (very slow) water under the bridge, as is most of Crumb's pseudo mysterious but low-key theatricism.

1969: String Quartet No. 3, by Karel Husa

Another middle class flapjack by a respectable workman. Music for Prague is a much more important piece.

1970: Time's Encomium, by Charles Wuorinen

Although it never had the impact of Stockhausen's Gesang, it is an attractive if not overlong electronic symphony. Part II develops Part I with some real enlargement of the listener's perception. The fact that it was made on dated equipment does not compromise the piece's effectiveness.

1971: Synchronisms No. 6, by Mario Davidovsky

More Columbia electronic stuff. Davidovsky was making electronic concerti for a few years, starting with flute and tape (No. 1) and culminating at this point with piano and tape. The piece benefitted by touring performances of Gilbert Kalish and other luminary pianists, who liked the idea of a portable concerto. The style is "IA" (international atonal) and deadly serious. Listening to this music for me is like going to church: I pray that I not fall asleep and involuntarily pass wind.

1972: Windows, by Jacob Druckman

Colorful, athematic, very trendy for the early 70's that had not yet discovered Philip Glass. Druckman's Viola Concerto of a few years later is a more substantial work.

1973: String Quartet No. 3, by Elliott Carter

See commentary for 1960. No living (barely) composer is so overrated: this guy sold out to the god of pompous pseudo modernism. Look back at the marvelous Piano Sonata, Cello Sonata, or choral works of the forties and the well-written Variations for Orchestra from 1955 to see what I mean.

1974: Notturno, by Donald Martino

So many clowns: so few circuses (unless you count the universities).

1975: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, by Dominick Argento

This is a real song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano, and it has found a rightful place in the repertoire. Argento's other vocal music, either as opera or for chorus, is less original but very effective.

1976: Air Music, by Ned Rorem

Rorem has a number of effective orchestra works (the String Symphony and Sunday Morning, for example) that are more substantial, and his most recent song cycle of 1997, Evidence of Things Unseen is a wonderful addition to the repertoire.

1977: Visions of Terror and Wonder, by Richard Wernick

A one-trick pony with yarmulka, Wernick worries so much abut every note that even his powerful music has an anal retentive quality.

1978: Deja Vu for Percussion Quartet and Orchestra, by Michael Colgrass

Colgrass is another of those effusive Americans with a brash sense of self worth. His works are almost always dramatic and effective. I wish he wrote more music.

1979: Aftertones of Infinity, by Joseph Schwantner

I have the same feeling about this composer. Mountains Rising to Nowhere is probably a more important piece, although the avant-garde notation and special effects seem dated to me now.

1980: In Memory of a Summer Day, by David Del Tredici

All of the "Alice" pieces demonstrate an interesting voice; however, I don't think Del Tredici works very hard or takes his own work too seriously.

1981: No award

1982: Concerto for Orchestra, by Roger Sessions

Thick and thicker: dumb and dumber, nothing can save us from the man who was earnest but not wise. He fills up the pages with smudges of thick crayon. This is a lifetime achievement? award. Milton Babbitt also got a "Special Achievement Award" but could have easily won in 1962 for his electronic drama, Philomel.

1983: Symphony No. 1, by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

PC does something right: this is the first award to a woman, and Zwilich's output in general is solid and attractive. It is not "women's music" (whatever that means). Political correctness, even when it is well-meaning, makes my skin itch, like when I see those little fuzzy monsters in "Ghoulies" movies.

1984: " Canti del Sole" for Tenor and Orchestra, by Bernard Rands

More academic wind: don't waste your time on this pompous, stinky balloon.

1985: Symphony, RiverRun, by Stephen Albert

Albert's tragic death at an early age has robbed us of the opportunity to see if he would have lived up to his potential: at the time of the writing of this piece, he was flirting with the gooey blandness of postmodernism.

1986: Wind Quintet IV, by George Perle

The academic moldy fig continues to rot. I would defy anyone to separate out one wind quintet from another from this stuffed turkey.

1987: The Flight into Egypt, by John Harbison

This piece is lighter than sewer gas and not in the league of such pieces as his wonderful Mirabai Songs, etiher in the piano or orchestral versions. His recent opera, Gatsby, mixes the languages of Wozzeck and 23 skidoo, with predictably disasterous results.

1988: 12 New Etudes for Piano, by William Bolcom

Bolcom plays safe and grabs the brass ring. Check out his vocal music or the 'Graceful Ghost" ragto find the real artist. So much of the impurity of style has influenced a whole generation of postmodern wannabees.

1989: Whispers Out of Time, by Roger Reynolds

Pasteboard roast duck from a consummate politician: we should have this guy in the UN.

1990: " Duplicates ": A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, by Mel Powell

GIGO (garbage in-garbage out): another overrated pseudo-avant-garde blowhard: don't waste your time.

1991: Symphony, by Shulamit Ran

PC rears its perfumed head once again. It would be hard to find a more derivative larcenist: unless you stumble on James Horner on a good (bad?) day.

1992: The Face of Night, The Heart of the Dark, by Wayne Peterson

The ears of Gable, The feet of Clay: give me a break. This year there was a conflict between the three-member jury, which wanted to give the prize to the equally boring, but three times as long Concerto Fantastique of Ralph Shapey. The Pulitzer Board went with Peterson, showing that non musicians can be a pretentiious as the pros..

1993: Trombone Concerto, by Christopher Rouse

More dissonant flatulence: "a tale told by an idiot ....." (you know the rest).

1995: Stringmusic, by Morton Gould

This award is a belated tribute to one of the most reliably productive musicians of his generation.

1996: Lilacs, for Voice and Orchestra, by George Walker

The board goes conservative: this is not a bad piece but not in the league of the Cello Sonata from 1957 or the Piano Sonata No. 1 from 1953.

1997: Blood on the Fields, by Wynton Marsalis

Poop on the pasture: this is a truly terrible piece, confirming the wrongheadedness of the PC mentality when applied to the arts. How one of the greatest brass players in history could excrete this amateurish miasma is beyond me.

1998: String Quartet #2 (musica instrumentalis), by Aaron Jay Kernis

Kernis is one of those rare artists with enormous potential and a real voice. Symphony No. 2 is probably his strongest work.

1999: Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion, by Melinda Wagner

A nobody filling the Eastcoast nonvoid.

2000: Life is a Dream, Act II, by Lewis Spratlan

It appears that the Pulitzer barrel has no bottom.

2001: Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra, by John Corrigliano

I have not yet heard this piece, but Corrigliano seems an inevitable choice, given his general visibility (Oscar for The Red Violin score last year).

2002: Ice Field, by Henry Brant (premiered by San Francisco Symphony)

2003: On the Transmigration of Souls, by John Adams (premiered by the New York Philharmonic Sept. 2002).

More PC schlock from our schlockmeister laureate (check out that text!)

2004: Tempest Fantasy, by Paul Moravec (violin, cello, piano, clarinet).

2005: Second Concerto for Orchestra, by Steven Stucky (premiered by the LA Phil on Mar. 12, 2004).

The bottom of the barrel has truly been reached this time: like with Richard Nixon in politics, we now feature the genius of mediocrity. On the other hand, politics and contemporary classical music may be kissing cousins. The smell rises.

2006: Piano Concerto, "Chiavi in Mano," by Yehudi Wyner (Publ.associated).

I have not heard this piece nor seen the score, by Wyner always struck me as a boring old poop, incapable even, of a creative bowel movement. At least he can play the piano, which means that whatever he excreted will be idiomatic. "Le Chiavi" can also mean wrenches (as opposed to keys), leading me to think of old Wyner changing the oil under his car.
As a footnote to this year's entry here, I went to the websites of Composition Departments of Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, and Berkeley to hear what the (booby) prize winning faculties have produced: I can safely report that the proto-minimalist detritus I heard in the sound bites are no threat to the Hip-Hop mainstream in pop (and that's a good thing).
Who should have won this year? Eric Whitacre, a composer out of Utah who has written some of the best choral music I have heard in a long time.

2007: Sound Grammar, by Ornette Coleman.

This selection shows how the boundary between classical art and "other" art is disappearing. It also shows the declining relevance of classical music.

2008: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

It probably won beause it was premiered in New York and will probably never be heard again.
Far more important is the Bob Dylan citation for special achievement, further supporting my last year's comment.

2009: Double Sextet, by Steve Reich.

Any piece by Reich would be an inevitable choice since Reich is 72 and has never won. I never though much of his work; and, unless he was visited by an angel who fed him some good ideas, this piece can just go on the pile.

2010:Violin Concerto, by Jennifer Higdon.

This is a pretty safe, logical choice, since Higdon has been getting the kind of commissions the atonalists like Erb, Rands, and Felciano were getting in the 70's. We now appear to be in the realm of derivativism. Higdon's music reminds me of Zwilich;s, except the latter's is much better. When is the Board going to give us something really new (how about Nico Muhly?).

2011Madame White Snake, by Zhou Long.

This opera was premiered by the Boston Opera in 2010: looks like another multicultural stew, always popular these days. Chen Yi, his wife will probably win next year for an opera based on some baloney by Amy Tan, Saving Fish from Drowning, my first Pulitzer prediction.

2012Silent Night: An Opera in II Acts, by Kevin Puts.

Considering that Tod Machover ("Brain Salad Tom,") was the runner tup, This guy is probably just as squirrelly. Actually, if you go to his website, you can hear a wide variety of post romantic tonal music often makes use of motor rhythms to propel it. There sems to be a conscious rejection of any modernist devices. That may not be such a bad thing; however, we have already had Ralph Vaughan-Williams and don't need another. Impressive is the fact that he writes symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and this opera (which I have not heard but which is described in great detail on his website.. My adice: Go to Scotland and take in James MacMillan's "Seven last Words."

2013Partita for Eight Singers, by Caroline Shaw.

This choral piece is interspersed with other stuff under the title of "Roomful of Teeth." It appears to be derivative of Tavener's work, but more boring. I am afraid that the clock has run out in the area of relevancy in contemporary classical music. The disconnect with popular culture and the shear lack of imagination, coupled with ineptness in craft, should remove all consideration of new classical works of music. Therefore, I amd not going to write about his prize, or anuything else relating to contemporary music prizes, because I don't want to waste the reader's or listener's time. If you want music, go to the dead guys.If you want to listen to works of more losers: Anna Clyne, Julia Wolf, Michel VAn Der Aa, Daniele Gasparini, Helmut Lachenmann will provide the proper dose of horse manure.
click here for a complete archive of Pulitizer Prizes in all fields.

People who have not won (and should have)

Leonard Bernstein: for either of the first two symphonies or West Side Story, arguably the finest musical dramatic work since WW II.

One might argue that Stephen Sondheim should have won at least once for such groundbreaking works as Pacific Overtures (1976) or Sweeney Todd (1979).

George Rochberg: for the Third Quartet of 1973, a powerful and influential work that still enchants.

Lou Harrison: for any of the "gamelan" pieces that are just one small part of his colorful output.

Among the "American" works, the Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra (1959) or the Symphony on G (1964 with later revisions) would be good choices.

Paul Chihara: for any of the Driftwood pieces from the 70's.

They anticipate Crumb and the whole beginning of a more broadly based chromaticism that owes nothing to Schoenberg. Another possibility would be The Tempest (1980), a ballet which had passing fame as the substitute TV broadcast for the Academy Awards, rescheduled because of the Reagan assasination attempt.

John Adams: for Nixon in China which not only set a trend but is a good show in its own right.

Paul Creston: for Symphony No. 2 (1944) and Symphony No. 3 'Three Mysteries" (1950).

Here is a good example in which the academy looked with disfavor on Creston's neoromanticism and considered him to be out of fashion. The popularity of John Corrigliano for the last decade shows a reversal in the trend; although Corrigliano's Symphony No. 1 (1989) lost out to the gaseous Roger Reynolds.

Randall Thompson: for Frostiana, (1959).

Just look at what won this year!

Marc Blitzstein: for The Cradle Will Rock (1945).

Carl Ruggles: for Organum for Large Orchestra (1947).

Ernest Bloch: for Concerto Symphonique for Piano and Orchestra (1948).

This is a remarkable work, broad and sweeping in concept.

Vincent Persichetti: for Symphony No. 5, " Symphony for Strings ", (1953).

This piece is one of Persichetti's best and would have demonstrated greater wisdom on the part of the board than giving no award at all.

Daniel Pinkham: for Symphony No. 3, (1985) or the Christmaws Cantata.

I would like to raise a point about the impact of the Prize: is it being awarded for the merit of a single work, a lifetime of achievement, or for powerful and compelling influence that an artist might project? Notice that the enormously influential John Cage never won, even in the days of the Construction pieces of the 40's or with the pan-culturally inclusive Renga with Apartment House from the time of the American Bicentennial. In fact, none of the truly avant-garde experimentalists, like Morton Feldman, Gordon Mumma, or the early works of Philip Glass have been honored. In 1976, Einstein on the Beach was probably the most persuasive indicator of the return of tonal music and the establishment of Minimalism as a viable style. We may want to conclude that the Prize has meant different things at different times in the century.

Read recent comments (June 2008) by George Walker, Pulitzer recipient

I recently received some alternative Pulitizer Prize suggestions from Walter Simmons Click on his name for the information.

Click here for Classical Net's composer biographies or check out the Composer Informational Sites List

I invite your submissions (click here).

This list will grow in time (as will my increasing impatience with the contemporary classical art).

Updated and corrected: March 24, 2014.