[UPDATED APRIL 21, 2015]
Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe has been awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The work (which was commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program and is published by Red Poppy Music/G. Schirmer, Inc. ASCAP) premiered on April 26, 2014 in Philadelphia in a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus. The Pulitzer citation describes the work as “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.” The prize is for a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States” during the previous calendar year and comes with a cash award of ten thousand dollars.
The score of Anthracite Fields is featured below.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize has had a variety of ramifications for composers. For emerging composers, the accolade can be a door opener that leads to major performance opportunities and commissions. For more established composers, it can be a confirmation of a life’s work. Yet for some composers, its impact can be negligible.
“I really don’t know,” wrote Wolfe in an email correspondence following a telephone conversation. “I do what I do. As an artist you are used to plowing through, carving your own path. Sometimes no one answers your call or email and then sometimes someone shines a light on you or says hey that’s interesting or moving or cool. I am always challenging myself – reaching for something, in a way trying to understand something human in the reach. It’s glorious to write music. I feel so lucky to work with so many great musicians. It takes a village as they say, and especially in music. The village I am in is a beautiful one.”
Asked about how and why she came to compose Anthracite Fields, Wolfe added the following observations:
Anthracite Fields was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. I was born in Philadelphia and am from a small town about an hour north of the city. When [Mendelssohn Club Artistic Director] Alan Harler called me about writing a piece I thought that I would look to the region. Where I grew up, if you took the long country road up to the highway, route 309, and turned right you’d be heading toward Philadelphia. If you turned left, which we hardly ever did, you would head in the direction of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton–coal country. We hardly ever turned left, maybe once in a while to go to a diner. So I thought that rather than looking toward the big city I’d look the other way. The Mendelssohn Club was incredible in setting me up with a guide to the region. Theater artist Laurie McCants, who has a company in Bloomsburg, PA became my guide. She had a library full of books on the region, about life in coal country. She took me to some amazing small local historical museums that depicted everything about the miners–from the tools they used to the medical facilities, to the disasters. For over a year I read a lot, interviewed miners and children of miners, gathered information, and went down into the mines. It’s a vast subject to cover, but powerful themes emerged and called out to be in the piece. Anthracite Fields is about this industry and the life surrounding it. The piece is not directly narrative, but looks at the subject from different angles. My intention was to honor the people that lived and worked there, this dangerous work that fueled the nation.
Also nominated as finalists in for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Xiaoxiang by Lei Liang, premiered on March 28, 2014, in Boston by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, inspired by a widow’s wail and blending the curious sensations of grief and exhilaration (Schott Music Corporation); and The Aristos by John Zorn, premiered on December 21, 2014, in New York City, which the jury described as “a parade of stylistically diverse sounds for violin, cello and piano that create a vivid demonstration of the brain in fluid, unpredictable action.”
Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded annually since 1917. The Music Prize was added in 1943 when William Schuman’s Secular Cantata No. 2, “A Free Song” received the first honor. Past prize winning works include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1945), Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 (1947, awarded 30 years after its composition), Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958), Elliott Carter’s String Quartets Nos. 2 (1960) and 3 (1973), Charles Wuorinen’s electronic music composition Time’s Encomium (1970), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Symphony No. 1 – Three Movements for Orchestra (1983), Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields (1997), John Adams’s September 11, 2001 memorial On The Transmigration of Souls (2003), David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2008), Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto (2010), and John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2014).
Anyone–not only the composer or publisher of the work–can submit a work to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize in Music provided it is accompanied by a $50 entry fee and meets the qualifications of being composed by an American and having had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous calendar year. As is the case with all Pulitzer prize-winners, the awarded pieces of music are chosen through a two panel process. Each year a different jury–typically consisting of five professionals in the field and which usually includes at least one previous winner of the award–is convened and selects a total of three finalists from works received for consideration. (The jury for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music consisted of only four people and did not include a previous winner of the award.) The three finalists are then submitted to the 20-member Pulitzer board, consisting mostly of major newspaper editors and executives as well as a few academics. (The board elects its own members who individually serve three-year terms.) The winner is determined by a majority vote of the board. It is possible for the jury not to choose any of the finalists–as was the case for the Music award in the years 1964, 1965, and 1981 resulting in no prize being given. The board can also demand that the jury selects a different work, as was the case in 1992 when the only work the jury submitted to the board was Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique. (The work which was ultimately awarded the prize that year was Wayne Peterson’s The Face of the Night.) Since 2004, in an effort to broaden the purview of the award, premiere recordings issued on commercial recorded releases from the previous calendar year have also been eligible. Thus far, two works that have appeared on recordings have thus far been awarded the prize: Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar (2007) and Caroline Shaw’s Partita (2013). In addition, over the years, lifetime citations have been awarded–most of them posthumously. Citation honorees thus far have been Roger Sessions (1974), Scott Joplin (1976 posth.), William Schuman (1985) George Gershwin (1998 posth.), Duke Ellington (1999 posth.), Thelonious Monk (2006 posth.), John Coltrane (2007 posth.), Bob Dylan (2008), and Hank Williams (2010 posth.).
The jurors for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music, Harvard University (Chair); Steven Mackey, composer, professor and chair, department of music, Princeton University; Maria Schneider, composer and orchestra leader, New York, NY; and Mark Swed, music critic, Los Angeles Times. A complete list of the 2015 Pulitzer board is here.
Pulitzer Administrator Mike Pride announced the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winners at a press conference held in the Pulitzer World Room in Pulitzer Hall, Columbia University at 3pm eastern time on April 20, 2015 that was streamed live on YouTube.