Pulitzer Prize for Music

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The Pulitzer Prize for Music was first awarded in 1943. Joseph Pulitzer did not call for such a prize in his will, but had arranged for a music scholarship to be awarded each year. This was eventually converted into a full-fledged prize: "For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year.” Because of the requirement that the composition had its world premiere during the year of its award, the winning work had rarely been recorded and sometimes had received only one performance. [1] In 2004 the terms were modified to read: “For a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” [2]



In 1965, the jury voted to give the prize to Duke Ellington, but the Pulitzer Board refused to accept the ruling and chose to give no award that year. Ellington responded: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (He was then sixty-seven years old.) [3] Despite this joke, Nat Hentoff reported that when he spoke to Ellington about the subject, he was "angrier than I'd ever seen him before," and Ellington said, "I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind." [4]

In 1996, after years of internal debate, the Pulitzer Prize board announced a change in the criteria for the music prize "so as to attract the best of a wider range of American music." [3] The result was that the following year Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize. However, his victory was controversial because according to the Pulitzer guidelines, his winning work, a three hour long oratorio about slavery, "Blood on the Fields", should not have been eligible. Although a winning work was supposed to have had its first performance during that year, Marsalis' piece premiered on April 1, 1994 and its recording, released on Columbia Records, was dated 1995. Yet, the piece won the 1997 prize. Marsalis' management had submitted a "revised version" of "Blood on the Fields" which was "premiered" at Yale University after the composer made seven small changes. [5] When asked what would make a revised work eligible, the chairman of that year's music jury, Robert Ward, said: "Not a cut here and there...or a slight revision," but rather something that changed "the whole conception of the piece." After being read the list of revisions made to the piece, Ward acknowledged that the minor changes should not have qualified it as an eligible work, but he said that "the list you had here was not available to us, and we did not discuss it." [6]

The first woman to receive the award was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who won in 1983. Zwilich was also the first woman to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition at the Juilliard School of Music. [7]

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