Prizing the Pulitzer: History, Celebration and the Outliers

John Luther Adams, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, will visit South Dakota as part of the SDHC's events to commemorate the centennial year of the Prize. The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra performs Adams's Prize-winning piece Become Ocean on Saturday, Oct. 8, following additional public events featuring Adams on Thursday, Oct. 6 - a lecture and a panel discussion

“My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in '04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. ... It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life.”

—Paul Moravec, whose Monserrat (Concerto for Cello and Orchestra) was performed by the SDSO in 2009, in conversation with Frank J. Oteri in April 2016 for NewMusicBox

“Although I’ve received a number of awards with larger monetary benefits, no other award has the same profile. Everyone has heard of the Pulitzer Prize. There is no doubt that it’s changed my life. I’m just glad that it happened in my sixties, not when I was younger. At this stage in life I know who I am as an artist, and the recognition has not changed my music. But it has brought the music to more listeners. And it’s made it easier for me to continue following the music wherever it wants to lead me.” 

- John Luther Adams, Sept. 2016


Written by Frank Oteri

Few accolades are so widely recognized and respected that receiving one is almost a guarantee that it will appear in the first paragraph of your biography and usually within the first sentence. But such is the case with The Pulitzer Prize, an annual award recognizing American achievements in journalism as well as literature and musical composition.

Part of this is because to receive a Pulitzer puts you in the same club as such household name novelists as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Updike (all of whom received the award twice), Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, and—more recently—E. Annie Proulx and Junot Díaz; playwrights like Eugene O’Neill (a four-time winner), Edward Albee (a three-time winner), Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Lynn Nottage; poets Robert Frost (another four-time winner), Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery, and Rita Dove; and composers such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Ornette Coleman, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Reich, and Jennifer Higdon.

And, perhaps even more importantly, since the majority of the awards are for journalism, the prizes are reported on by every significant media outlet in the United States and many abroad as well. This means a major boost in name recognition for anyone who isn’t already a household name by the time they receive the award.

joseph pulitzerworld.jpgThe history of these prizes is almost as legendary as the numerous luminaries who have received it. They were first established from a bequest made to Columbia University in the will of media magnate Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World who, ironically given his role in establishing these awards for excellence in reportage, is often credited—together with his chief competitor William Randolph Hearst with whom we was engaged in a bitter circulation war—as the initiator of yellow journalism.

Over the years, the prizes themselves were often the source of controversy. Sinclair Lewis famously rejected the Pulitzer he had been given in 1926 for his novel Arrowsmith and a generation later, Charles Ives gave away the money he had been awarded for a symphony he had composed some 30-years earlier claiming that "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up." Perhaps even more incendiary have been years in when various prizes were not awarded for a variety of reasons.

Each year’s awards are adjudicated by a jury of experts from that particular field which then makes its preferences known to a board, consisting primarily of journalists, who are the final arbiters. The 1963 Drama jury’s selection, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff, was deemed too offensive by the board. Also overruled was the 1974 Fiction jury’s choice, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and—perhaps most notoriously—the 1965 Music jury’s suggestion of giving a special citation to Duke Ellington in response to which the then 67-year-old composer was quoted as saying "Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (Ellington finally received that citation in 1999, 25 years after his death.)

Still, the works that did receive the nod in the now 100 Pulitzer Prize announcements that have taken place since they were first awarded on June 4, 1917, constitute a remarkably prescient list of significant American contributions in all of these disciplines.

To honor the Prize’s centenary, there have been celebratory events all over the country inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning work. In April, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, hosted a series of workshops on social justice and equality highlighting Pulitzer winners from the Civil Rights Era. And this past June in Dallas, a symposium on the U.S. presidency marked what is probably the first-ever collaboration between three presidential libraries—those of our three Texan presidents thus far: Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

There have also been a series of more intimate events called Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires, among the most recent of which was a three-day celebration of 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams in Alaska, where the composer lived and worked for decades, hosted by the Alaska Humanities Forum. The South Dakota Humanities Council together with the South Dakota Symphony, which under the direction of Delta David Gier has had a long history of performing the music of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, joins these Pulitzer centenary celebrations with their performance of Adams’s Pulitzer-winning orchestral work Become Ocean on Saturday, October 8.

Video published on Apr 21, 2014 (youtube) - Composer John Luther Adams discusses the relationship between "Become River" and his Pulitzer-winning "Become Ocean" in an interview with American Public Media's Emily Reese. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed the world premiere of "Become River" on April 3-5, 2014.

But might music fans actually be reveling in Pulitzer centenary festivities too soon? After all, it was not until 1943—nearly three decades after the Pulitzer Prize was first established—that William Schuman received the first such prize for a musical composition. (The bequest from the will of Joseph Pulitzer did not specify an award for music as part of these prizes although it did establish a separate annually awarded music scholarship.) Admittedly, some music did sneak into other awards before that initial Pulitzer Prize for Music was given. Well, sort of.

The musical Of Thee I Sing received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932. Co-librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyricist Ira Gershwin were honored, but the show’s composer, George Gershwin, wasn’t. (Musicals have actually fetched the Drama prize numerous times since then and their respective composers were rightfully listed among the awardees, most recently in 2016 with Hamilton, though its composer, Lin Manuel Miranda, was also its lyricist, librettist, and star.)

No matter what year you begin counting from, the fact that such an award even exists for music is something that anyone who cares about this medium should celebrate.

Many music aficionados have complained over the years that having just one award to encompass such a vast field as music, especially since its eligibility criteria were expanded in 2004 to acknowledge recordings as well as works that received their premiere performance (which now makes it more possible for jazz to be considered in addition to score-based concert compositions). After all, there are six different subcategories for reporting and other five for books.

But the Pulitzers are mostly concerned with journalism which is disseminated through the written word. Sure, there are two awards for photography—breaking news and feature—but both of those have direct journalistic ties. There is no Pulitzer for painting or sculpture or architecture or dance or, for that matter, non-journalistic photography. So music is an outlier to the rest of the Pulitzers.

Adams, John Luther photo.jpg

And what a joy that a work that is as timely as John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean is now a part of the Pulitzer canon. A note Adams appended to the score describes his inspiration for writing it:

Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.

This powerful and deeply moving half an hour of music might ultimately have a greater impact on people than all the news reports and editorials about climate change. Maybe the Pulitzer Prize for Music is not an outlier after all.

frank oteri2.jpgASCAP Award-winning composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he also serves as the Co-Editor of its web magazine NewMusicBox. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM).