Rewriting History: Alternative Pulitzers

Rewriting History: Alternative Pulitzers

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

There’s no doubt that many distinguished composers and deserving works have received the Pulitzer Prize in Music over the past six decades. Still, reading through the list of Pulitzers, I’m struck by the rather orthodox view of American musical history it suggests.

Like most prizes, the Pulitzer is selected by a jury, not a judge. But indulging my own (undoubtedly myopic) hindsight, I’d like to offer the following list of how the awards might have been made.

Compiling this list turned out to be far more complicated than I’d imagined.

For one thing, I discovered that it’s much easier to find information about premieres and recordings of so-called Uptown music than it is to find similar information about music by Downtown composers (not to mention the rest of us Out-of-Towners). Clearly, composers with the support of academic institutions and large publishing and recording companies have had a distinct advantage in competitions such as the Pulitzer. In time, as the rest of the new music community becomes better organized and better known, this should change.

To receive the Pulitzer, a work must have received its premiere in the United States, between March 2 of the previous year and March 1 of the year of the award. But as it turns out, many important works of American music were first performed in another country.

And in many of the years, the competition was very stiff: Any of several equally-strong composers and works might just as easily appeared on my list. So this is just one of many possible alternative histories I could’ve written.

Certainly most NewMusicBox readers could produce lists of your own. And I hope you will. I offer this particular list in a spirit of constructive provocation, not so much as a critique of the Pulitzer, but to raise questions about how and why such awards are made, and what effect they may have.

Why do some composers repeatedly win prizes such as the Pulitzer, while other composers of equivalent artistic stature never do?

If some of the composers on my list had actually won the Pulitzer or other major awards, how might that recognition have influenced their artistic and professional lives? In turn, how might this have affected the course of American music in general?

If you could rewrite the history of the Pulitzer – (or the Grawenmeyer, the Guggenheim, the MacArthur, the Alpert, the Fromm, the Koussevitsky, or the Grammies, to name only several) – which composers and works would be on your list?

1943 – Carl Ruggles: Evocations
1944 – John Cage: Amores
1945 – Samuel Barber: Capricorn Concerto
1946 – Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
1947 – Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3
1948 – Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All
1949 – Paul Bowles: Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion
1950 – William Schuman: Violin Concerto
1951 – John Cage: String Quartet in Four Parts
1952 – Lou Harrison: Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra
1953 – Ruth Crawford Seeger: Suite for Woodwind Quintet
1954 – Elliott Carter: Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord
1955 – Harry Partch: Barstow
1956 – Alan Hovhaness: Symphony Number 2 (“Mysterious Mountain”)
1957 – Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Issacson: Illiac Suite
1958 – Harry Partch: The Bewitched
1959 – John Cage: Concert for Piano and Orchestra
1960 – Roger Sessions: Symphony Number 4
1961 – Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz
1962 – Earle Brown: Available Forms I
1963 – Charles Mingus: Epitaph
1964 – Milton Babbitt: Philomel
1965 – Terry Riley: In C
1966 – Charles Ives: Symphony No. 4
1967 – Muhal Richard Abrams: Levels and Degrees of Light
1968 – Morton Subotnick: Silver Apples of the Moon
1969 – Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury
1970 – Alvin Lucier: I Am Sitting In A Room
1971 – George Crumb: Black Angels
1972 – Steve Reich: Drumming
1973 – Lou Harrison: La Koro Sutro
1974 – Ben Johnston: String Quartet Number 4 (“Amazing Grace”)
1975 – Philip Glass: Music in 12 Parts
1976 – Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated
1977 – Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
1978 – Conlon Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano
1979 – Lou Harrison: Threnody for Carlos Chavez
1980 – William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes
1981 – Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives
1982 – La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano
1983 – Glenn Branca: Symphony Number 3
1984 – Morton Feldman: Three Voices for Joan LaBarbara
1985 – Stephen Scott: New Music for Bowed Piano
1986 – Morton Feldman: For Philip Guston
1987 – Janice Giteck: Om Shanti
1988 – John Adams: Nixon in China
1989 – Lois V. Vierk: Cirrus
1990 – Paul Dresher: Double Ikat
1991 – Meredith Monk: Atlas
1992 – Eve Beglarian: Machaut in the Machine Age
1993 – Michael Gordon: Yo Shakespeare
1994 – David Lang: Lying, Cheating, Stealing
1995 – Julia Wolfe: Tell Me Everything
1996 – Peter Garland: Another Sunrise
1997 – Mikel Rouse: Dennis Cleveland
1998 – Ingram Marshall: Evensongs
1999 – MaryAnn Amacher: Music for Sound-Joined Rooms
2000 – Robert Ashley: Dust



In addition to awards for specific works in specific years, Lifetime Achievement awards are ocassionally given in recognition of the exceptional importance of a composer’s complete body of work.

My list of these awards would include:

Amy Beach (posthumous)
Duke Ellington
Edgar Varése
Thelonious Monk
Henry Cowell
John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Henry Brant
Cecil Taylor
Pauline Oliveros
James Tenney
Christian Wolff

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