Did YOU know Appalachian Spring won the Pulitzer Prize?
Many of our country’s most lauded composers were awarded the Pulitzer Prize: Barber, Copland, Corigliano, Reich, and Adams are just some of the names who have taken home America’s most iconic prize.
Taking a look at the list of winners is a who’s who of contemporary classical music history.
Today, we examine our picks for the 10 best compositions to ever be awarded the Pulitzer.
No two pieces on this list are similar; some are decidedly minimalist while others are decidedly maximalist in their composition. Some are rooted in American folk traditions while others are inspired by cross-cultural music.
Although previously seen as a prize awarding academics with European classical backgrounds, today the prize has awarded artists as varied as composer Jennifer Higdon, rapper Kendrick Lamar, and saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
We judge music based on influence, compositional excellence, and impact on classical music.
Here are our picks for the 10 best Pulitzer Prize winning compositions in music history.
10) Violin Concerto – Jennifer Higdon (2008)
We start our list off with a masterpiece of the contemporary classical genre, Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto.
Dedicated to violinist Hilary Hahn, as heard in the recording above, the work is an imaginative foray into Higdon’s creative orchestral palette.
Premiering in early 2009, the work received instant praise; Gramophone called it an “attractive, colourful work, scored most imaginatively and with great finesse.”
The last movement in particular is popular among listeners, garnering over 150,000 listens on Spotify alone. Entitled “Fly Forward,” the ultimate movement is a rhythmically inventive show-stopper worthy of inclusion among the repertoire of contemporary violin concertos.
9) Second String Quartet – Elliott Carter (1959)
The Second String Quartet – one of Carter’s most famous pieces – helped Carter gain significant recognition in the US, according to Taruskin’s history of Western music.
Looking over the music, one sees inventiveness pouring out of the manuscript – the appearance of a 21/16 time signature, metric modulation, and fragmented melodic motives are just some of the things you will see in this score.
The work itself is avant-garde, akin to contemporaries Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and Gyorgy Ligeti.
Carter wrote this about the work:
“The form of the work does not follow traditional patterns but is developed directly from the relationships and interactions of the four instruments, that result in varying activities, tempi, moods, and feelings.”
Fun fact: this piece was premiered when Carter was already 51 years old – he went on to live for 53 more years, making this work one of his early to mid-career compositions.
8) Symphony No. 2 – John Corigliano (2001)
A gripping composition, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Boston Symphony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the BSO’s Symphony Hall. The work is based on his 1995 masterpiece String Quartet.
The second movement, in particular, is at once haunting and difficult to forget. Repeated chords orchestrated in a wide voicing permeate the opening minutes.
The music at 2:30, starting with the con sordino dominant chord, creates a contrast stark, introspective, forgetting the tempestuous storm coming before it.
The end result is an amazing composition scored for strings alone.
John Corigliano himself used spatial notation in the piece, allowing the players to not always play in perfect notated time with each other.
If all the above sounds at all confusing, listen to the Helsinki Philharmonic play the work above to enjoy this convoluted masterpiece.
7) Tempest Fantasy – Paul Moravec (2004)
At its heart, Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy is a love letter to a classical literature masterpiece, Shakespeare’s own The Tempest.
A five movement work scored for cello, piano, violin, and clarinet, the music is dedicated to virtuoso clarinet player David Krakauer, who played in the work’s premiere performance and Naxos recording.
Virtuosity is in full force for this work; listening to the Naxos recording with Trio Solisti and David Krakauer, one can’t help but admire the technical capacity of these musicians playing a piece as difficult as any other in the modern repertoire.
According to a NYT article, Moravec has suggested the work was written in part for helping him cope with his own depression. One of the characters in Shakespeare’s play, Prospero, Moravec particularly identified with when weathering his own melancholy.
Whatever his inspiration, Moravec wrote a work that is undoubtedly an American chamber music masterpiece that will be remembered for a long time.
6) Piano Concerto – Samuel Barber (1963)
One of Barber’s most famous pieces after Adagio for Strings, this tumultuous 26-minute work encapsulates the spirit of mid-20th century composition; post World-War II neoclassicism, functional tonality, and a distinct trend of non-innovation favoring the composer’s own emotional aesthetic.
It is at once fascinating and impossibly difficult; pianists have long struggled to perform this challenging 20th-century masterwork.
For the listener, this music is nothing short of a rewarding experience; the second movement is one of the most beautiful, underrated pieces in the 20th-century repertoire.
Distinctly American, the second movement’s haunting C-sharp minor theme was written at the same time as America’s Cold War. Although no formal connection between the music and time period was noted by Barber, once cannot help but wonder if the political climate helped create such a tense, driven masterpiece.
5) The Little Match Girl Passion – David Lang (2008)
This tragic minimalist masterpiece by David Lang – which was also included in our top minimalist music list as well – is based on a classic tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
In the tale, a young girl sells matches on the street on Christmas to make money for her family. The lyrics chronicle the young girl’s dying visions and feelings as she falls victim to the cold weather.
As minimalist in its composition as it is in texture, the work is scored for four non vibrato a cappella voices and hand percussion.
4) Blood on the Fields – Wynton Marsalis (1997)
Marsalis’ 2.5 hour jazz oratorio, commissioned by Lincoln Center in the mid-1990s, explores the history of slavery and its consequences in American history.
As relevant in 1997 as it is in 2020, the plot details two slaves, Jesse and Leona, as they journey towards a difficult path of attaining freedom.
This was the first jazz work awarded the Pulitzer prize; subsequently, Ornette Coleman and Kendrick Lamar, jazz and r&b artists respectively, took home the coveted prize.
Marsalis has long been regarded among the greatest proprietors of jazz and classical music, sometimes known as the “third-stream” movement.
3) On the Transmigration of Souls – John Adams (2002)
John Adams’ response to the tragedy of 9/11 is profoundly moving, epic, and worthy of inclusion among America’s greatest artistic outputs.
The opening seconds of the work sample the sounds of a busy New York City street, followed by a young voice uttering the word “missing.”
Shortly thereafter, names of various victims are pronounced, not in any particularly musical way, but rather in a matter-of-fact manner.
This opening gives even a seasoned listener a deep sense of moving few works of art can evoke.
Commission by NYC’s very own New York Philharmonic, On the Transmigration of Souls is a testament to the brave who fell in one of our country’s greatest tragedies and remains among the most important works in Pulitzer history.
2) Appalachian Spring – Aaron Copland (1944)
If this list were based solely on the criterion of enduring fame, Appalachian Spring would certainly take the number one spot by a country mile; it is among classical music’s most performed, beloved works, and perhaps Copland’s most instantly recognizable.
Conceived as a ballet for legendary choreographer Martha Graham, the work now stands alone in the essential canon of classical music, having enjoyed thousands of performances since its composition 75 years ago.
The ballet’s story is as follows, according to a summary from the Los Angeles Times:
Created in 1944, the ballet tells a simple story. A young farm couple ruminate on their lives before getting married and setting up house in the wilderness. An itinerant preacher delivers a sermon. An older pioneer woman oversees the events with sympathy and wisdom. The newlyweds muse on their future as night falls. In the course of the dance, Graham reveals the inner lives of the four principal characters – Wife, Husbandman, Pioneer Woman and Preacher. She shows that the couple will face a future that will not be all sweetness and light, but she also draws out the private and shared emotional resources they will be able to bring to the challenges.
1) Partita for 8 Voices – Caroline Shaw (2013)
Justin Davidson, writer for New York magazine, said it best about this piece: it has the “rarest commodity in contemporary music: joy.”
Caroline Shaw’s masterful Partita for 8 Voices, composed before she even turned 30, takes our #1 pick for the greatest musical work in Pulitzer history.
Written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, this avant-garde yet accessible a cappella work incorporates an unlikely combination of classical music, Inuit singing, and, according to the Pulitzer’s own website, “novel vocal effects.”
At the time of her award, Caroline Shaw was the youngest Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient ever.
Featured image is of Wynton Marsalis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize of music, via Wikimedia Commons