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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A letter to the New York Times

An article by Ann Midgette was printed in the NY Times in 1993 regarding the Pulitzer prize in music.

I wrote the following letter to the editor (although it was never published)...


In the April 9th, 2003 edition of the New York Times, the article entitled Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers by Anne Midgette poured fuel on the fire of an apparent controversy regarding the Pulitzer Prize in music. At the head of her article she states that “the Pulitzer Prize is known as one of the greatest honors of American journalism, arts, and letters. But not of American music.” I strongly disagree.

While the monetary aspect of the award is less than what someone would earn bagging groceries part-time at the local supermarket, for more than half a century the Pulitzer has stood as the single most important symbolic indicator of significant accomplishment in the field of music composition. As a public, we owe this respect to our composers, and should continue to recognize them each year in this manner.

Any annual award to a single composer with both national and international press coverage is bound to be controversial – but more from the inside than from the outside. How do you select a new work from only one composer each year to reflect the richness of our contemporary music? The award has in fact been presented to composers of a wide variety of musical styles over time. I can’t think of a more diverse list of composers. Historically the honors role includes household names like Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Ned Rorem, Gian-Carlo Menotti, William Schuman and Virgil Thomson. The list is also inclusive of composers of semi-popular music - such a Morton Gould, Wynton Marsalis, and more experimental practitioners such as Henry Brant. Now that John Adams - a minimalist composer with significant stature - has won the 2003 award, the Pulitzer in music has even more diversity, representation and legitimacy.

I am very puzzled and concerned that Mr. Adams, as represented by his quoted comments in the article, has attempted to devalue the Pulitzer Prize in music. He says “Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism. Anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country's greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing." He goes on to say that “ ... most if not all of these genuinely creative spirits have been passed over year after year, often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes."

By implication, I interpret these comments by John Adams to mean that the Pulitzer doesn’t posses the glitz of the Hollywood Oscars, or the excitement of a pop artist winning a Grammy, because it also embraces the likes of Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Roger Reynolds and Donald Martino. Common sense and artistic integrity say that we should not rule out anyone’s success. It would be an injustice if we were to transform the role of the Pulitzer Prize to exclude hard working composers who happen to be employed at a university. This would presumably apply to the music of Leon Kirchner (Mr. Adams’ teacher at Harvard), who won the Pulitzer in 1968 for his Third String Quartet.

There is a marked arrogance in Mr. Adams’s words and stance. He comes across as ungrateful about the award and negative about the work of his colleagues. If the Pulitzer has lost any of its prestige, it is because of behavior like this. John Adams is presumably at liberty to renounce his Pulitzer and send the money back to its Trustees.