Pulitzer Prize for Music

Last updated

The Pulitzer Prize for Music is one of seven Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually in Letters, Drama, and Music. It was first given in 1943. Joseph Pulitzer arranged for a music scholarship to be awarded each year, and this was eventually converted into a 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." [1]


Because of the requirement that the composition have its world premiere during the year of its award, the winning work had rarely been recorded and sometimes had received only one performance. 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 his will, dated April 16, 1904, Joseph Pulitzer established annual prizes for a number of creative accomplishments by living Americans, including prizes for journalism, novels, plays, histories and biographies, but did not establish a prize in music, choosing instead to inaugurate an annual scholarship for, "the student of music in America whom the Advisory Board shall deem the most talented and deserving, in order that he may continue his studies with the advantage of European instruction." [3] The Pulitzer Prize for Music was instituted in 1943 to recognize works of: "music in its larger forms as composed by an American." [4] The phrase "music in its larger forms" proved difficult to interpret by the Advisory Board and by the prize's juries, resulting in controversies over the years. [5] One critic of the award stated: "The Prize Board could hardly have chosen more offensive words to communicate its message." [4]

In 1965, the jury unanimously decided that no major work was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In lieu, they recommended a special citation be given to Duke Ellington in recognition of the body of his work, but the Pulitzer Board refused and therefore no award was given that year. [6] 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.) [7] 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." [8]

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." [7] 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. [9] 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." [10]

Eight women have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, 1983; Shulamit Ran, 1991; Melinda Wagner, 1999; Jennifer Higdon, 2010; Caroline Shaw, 2013; Julia Wolfe, 2015; Du Yun, 2017; and Ellen Reid 2019. In addition to being the first woman to receive the award, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was also the first woman to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition at the Juilliard School of Music. [11] Du Yun is the first woman of color who received the award. [12] [13] [14] George Walker was the first African American composer to win the Prize, which he received for his work Lilacs in 1996.

In 1992 the music jury, which that year consisted of George Perle, Roger Reynolds, and Harvey Sollberger, selected Ralph Shapey's Concerto Fantastique for the award. However, the Pulitzer Board rejected that decision and chose to give the prize to the jury's second choice, Wayne Peterson's The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark . The music jury responded with a public statement stating that they had not been consulted in that decision and that the Board was not professionally qualified to make such a decision. The Board responded that the "Pulitzers are enhanced by having, in addition to the professional's point of view, the layman's or consumer's point of view," and they did not rescind their decision. [11]

In 2004, responding to criticism, Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes at the Columbia University School of Journalism, announced that they wanted to "broaden the prize a bit so that we can be more assured that we are getting the full range of the best of America's music..." Jay T. Harris, a member of the Pulitzer governing board said: "The prize should not be reserved essentially for music that comes out of the European classical tradition." [8]

The announced rule changes included altering the jury pool to include performers and presenters, in addition to composers and critics. Entrants are now no longer required to submit a score. Recording will also be accepted, although scores are still "strongly urged." Gissler said, "The main thing is we're trying to keep this a serious prize. We're not trying to dumb it down any way shape or form, but we're trying to augment it, improve it...I think the critical term here is 'distinguished American musical compositions.'" [15] Reaction among Pulitzer Prize in Music winners has varied.

The Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board officially announced: "After more than a year of studying the Prize, now in its 61st year, the Pulitzer Prize Board declares its strong desire to consider and honor the full range of distinguished American musical compositions—from the contemporary classical symphony to jazz, opera, choral, musical theater, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence...Through the years, the Prize has been awarded chiefly to composers of classical music and, quite properly, that has been of large importance to the arts community. However, despite some past efforts to broaden the competition, only once has the Prize gone to a jazz composition, a musical drama or a movie score. In the late 1990s, the Board took tacit note of the criticism leveled at its predecessors for failure to cite two of the country's foremost jazz composers. It bestowed a Special Citation on George Gershwin marking the 1998 centennial celebration of his birth and Duke Ellington on his 1999 centennial year. Earlier, in 1976, a Special Award was made to Scott Joplin in the American Bicentennial year. While Special Awards and Citations continue to be an important option, the Pulitzer Board believes that the Music Prize, in its own annual competition, should encompass the nation's array of distinguished music and hopes that the refinements in the Prize's definition, guidelines and jury membership will serve that end.” [16]

Subsequently, in 2006, a posthumous "Special Citation" was given to jazz composer Thelonious Monk, [17] and in 2007 the prize went to Ornette Coleman, a free jazz composer, who won the prize for his disc Sound Grammar , a recording of a 2005 concert, making it the first time a recording won the music Pulitzer, and a first for purely improvised music. [18]

In 2018, rapper Kendrick Lamar won the award for his 2017 hip hop album Damn . [19] The recording was the first musical work not in the jazz or classical genres to win the prize. [20]


Donald Martino, the 1974 winner, said, "If you write music long enough, sooner or later, someone is going to take pity on you and give you the damn thing. It is not always the award for the best piece of the year; it has gone to whoever hasn't gotten it before." [21]

John Corigliano, the winner in 2001, said that although the prize was intended for music that meant something to the world, it had become a very different kind of award, "by composers for composers" and "mired in a pool of rotating jurors." [9]

Composer and music critic Kyle Gann complained in an essay about "The Uptown Prejudice Against Downtown Music" that the judges for the Pulitzer and other top awards for composition often included "the same seven names over and over as judges": Gunther Schuller, Joseph Schwantner, Jacob Druckman, George Perle, John Harbison, Mario Davidovsky, and Bernard Rands. Gann argued that "Downtown" composers, like himself, did not win awards because the composer-judges were all "white men, all of them coming pretty much from the same narrow Eurocentric aesthetic.... These seven men have determined who wins the big prizes in American music for the last two decades. They have made sure that Downtown composers never win." [22]

After winning the Pulitzer in 2003, John Adams expressed "ambivalence bordering on contempt" because "most of the country's greatest musical minds" have been ignored in favor of academic music. [9]

Gunther Schuller welcomed the broadening of the eligibility criteria for the prize in 2004: "This is a long overdue sea change in the whole attitude as to what can be considered for the prize. It is an opening up to different styles and not at all to different levels of quality." [21] Olly Wilson agreed that the changes were "a move in the right direction" because they acknowledge "a wider spectrum of music, including music that is not written down." [21] Some other former prize winners disagreed. John Harbison called it "a horrible development", adding, "If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels." [21] According to Donald Martino, the prize had "already begun to go in the direction of permitting less serious stuff" before the 2004 changes. [21] Lewis Spratlan, who won the prize in 2000, also objected, saying "The Pulitzer is one of the very few prizes that award artistic distinction in front-edge, risk-taking music. To dilute this objective by inviting the likes of musicals and movie scores, no matter how excellent, is to undermine the distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement." [21] In 2018, former winner (1970) Charles Wuorinen denounced the jury for awarding the music award to hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, telling the New York Times the decision constituted: "the final disappearance of any societal interest in high culture." [23]


In its first 71 years to 2013, the Music Pulitzer was awarded 67 times; it was never split and no prize was given in 1953, 1964, 1965, and 1981. [24]






Indented entries are finalists after each year's winner.





Additional citations

Repeat winners

Four people have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice.

Related Research Articles

John Adams (composer) American composer

John Coolidge Adams is an American composer and conductor of classical music and opera, with strong roots in minimalism.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is an American composer, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her early works are marked by atonal exploration, but by the late 1980s, she had shifted to a postmodernist, neoromantic style. She has been called "one of America's most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers." She was a 1994 inductee into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Zwilich has served as the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor at Florida State University.

Milton Babbitt American composer

Milton Byron Babbitt was an American composer, music theorist, mathematician, and teacher. He is particularly noted for his serial and electronic music.

Shulamit Ran is an Israeli-American composer. She moved from Israel to New York City at 14, as a scholarship student at the Mannes College of Music. Her Symphony (1990) won her the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In this regard, she was the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first being Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in 1983. Ran was a professor of music composition at the University of Chicago from 1973 to 2015. She has performed as a pianist in Israel, Europe and the U.S., and her compositional works have been performed worldwide by a wide array of orchestras and chamber groups.

John Paul Corigliano is an American composer of classical music. His scores, now numbering over one hundred, have won him the Pulitzer Prize, five Grammy Awards, Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, and an Oscar. He is a distinguished professor of music at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School.

Elliott Carter American composer

Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was an American modernist composer. One of the most respected composers of the second half of the 20th century, he combined elements of European modernism and American "ultra-modernism" into a distinctive style with a personal harmonic and rhythmic language, after an early neoclassical phase. His compositions are known and performed throughout the world, and include orchestral, chamber music, solo instrumental, and vocal works. Carter was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Ward (composer)

Robert Eugene Ward was an American composer who is best remembered for his opera The Crucible (1961) after the 1953 play of the same name by Arthur Miller. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for that opera in 1962.

Charles Wuorinen American composer

Charles Peter Wuorinen was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer of contemporary classical music based in New York City. He performed his works and other 20th-century music as pianist and conductor.

John Harris Harbison is an American composer, known for his symphonies, operas, and large choral works.

Aaron Jay Kernis is a Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning American composer serving as a member of the Yale School of Music faculty. Kernis spent 15 years as the music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and as Director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Composers' Institute, and is currently the Workshop Director of the Nashville Symphony Composer Lab. He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his thirty-five year career. He lives in New York City with his wife, pianist Evelyne Luest, and their two children.

Grażyna Bacewicz Polish composer

Grażyna Bacewicz was a Polish composer and violinist. She is the second Polish female composer to have achieved national and international recognition, the first being Maria Szymanowska in the early 19th century.

Karel Husa was a Czech-born classical composer and conductor, winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Music and 1993 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. In 1954, he immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen in 1959.

Steven Stucky

Steven Edward Stucky was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer.

Augusta Read Thomas is an American composer, professor, and supporter of the arts.

Peter Goddard Lieberson was an American classical composer.

Wayne Peterson was an American composer, pianist, and educator. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark in 1992, when its board overturned the jury's unanimous selection of Concerto Fantastique by Ralph Shapey.

Kevin Matthew Puts is an American composer, best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his first opera.

Daniel Asia is an American composer. He was born in Seattle, Washington, in the United States of America.

Hanna Kulenty is a Polish composer of contemporary classical music. Since 1992, she has worked and lived both in Warsaw (Poland) and in Arnhem (Netherlands).


  1. "Music". www.pulitzer.org. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  2. "History of The Pulitzer Prizes". The Pulitzer Prizes (pulitzer.org). Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  3. "Extracts from the Will of Joseph Pulitzer". The Pulitzer Prizes. Columbia University. Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  4. 1 2 Fischer, Heinz-Dietrich and Erika J. Fischer (201). Musical Composition Awards 1943–1999: From Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber to Gian-Carlo Menotti and Melinda Wagner. Munich: K.G. Saur. p. L. ISBN   978-3598301858 . Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  5. Hohenberg, John (1997). The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America's Greatest Prize. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 145. ISBN   978-0815603924 . Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  6. Lang, Peter. "The Pulitzer Prize Winners for Music". Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2010, pp. 102–103.
  7. 1 2 Kaplan, Fred (April 19, 2006). "When will the Pulitzer Prize in music get it right? – By Fred Kaplan – Slate Magazine". Slate.com. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  8. 1 2 "WSJ - Arts, Theatre, Film, Music, Books, Food, Wine, Fashion, Events - WSJ.com". Opinionjournal.com. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  9. 1 2 3 "John Adams; Interviews, Articles & Essays". Earbox.com. May 6, 2003. Archived from the original on October 28, 2010. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  10. "Wynton Marsalis and the Pulitzer Prize". Greg Sandow. Archived from the original on November 23, 2010. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  11. 1 2 "The Pulitzer Prize in Music: 1943–2002". American.edu. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  12. "Du Yun Awarded 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music". NewMusicBox. April 10, 2017. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  13. "Du Yun's 'Angel's Bone' Wins Pulitzer Prize For Music". NPR.org. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  14. Robin, William (April 13, 2017). "What Du Yun's Pulitzer Win Means for Women in Classical Music" . Retrieved July 20, 2019 via www.newyorker.com.
  15. "Eminem News – Yahoo! Music". Music.yahoo.com. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
  16. "The Pulitzer Prize for Music – It's Time to Alter and Affirm". www.pulitzer.org. Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  17. "SPECIAL AWARD". www.pulitzer.org. Archived from the original on May 9, 2008. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  18. "Ornette Coleman Wins Music Pulitzer". NPR.org. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
  19. "The Pulitzer Prizes Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
  20. "Kendrick Lamar Wins Pulitzer Prize | Pitchfork". pitchfork.com. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
  21. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Dyer, Richard (June 1, 2004). "Changes to Definition of Pulitzer for Music Spark Dissonance". Boston Globe. p. E2. ISSN   0743-1791. Archived from the original on July 7, 2004. Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  22. Gann, Kyle (April 18, 1998). "Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music". Kyle Gann: Composer and Author. Retrieved July 17, 2015. In his list of writings, Gann includes this essay under the heading "On Gann's music".
  23. "Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen dies at 81". Washington Post. Associated Press. March 12, 2020. Archived from the original on March 14, 2020. Retrieved March 13, 2020.
  24. "Music". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 20, 2013.
  25. "The Central Park Five, by Anthony Davis – The Pulitzer Prizes". www.pulitzer.org.
  26. Littleton, Cynthia (June 11, 2021). "Katori Hall Wins Pulitzer Prize for Drama, George Floyd Videographer Darnella Frazier Receives Special Citation".

Further reading

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Pulitzer Prize for Music winners at Wikimedia Commons