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

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

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 AwardTop

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 MusicTop

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 AwardTop

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 FellowshipTop

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 AwardTop

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 FellowshipsTop

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 ScholarshipsTop

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 AwardTop

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.