Composition Competitions Compared


I recently had a conversation with a friend about the Pulitzer Prize, mainly about the trends in aesthetic style of the finalists and whether or not the award remains valid. Although I’ve had many such conversations in the past, this one sparked me to do some research, and compile my findings in a way that would allow me to compare all the major composition awards I’m aware of, year-by-year.

I’ve assembled this data in a spreadsheet that I’ve shared with you below. First, here are the awards I’ve included, along with some basic information on each.

Pulitzer Prize in Music Composition: Any piece by a US composer may be entered with a $50 entry fee. The piece must have received it’s world premiere in the US during the year. A jury of professional musicians (the majority being composers) nominates the finalists, and the Pulitzer Board decides upon the winner. In 2004, the scope of the prize was greatly broadened to include all genres of music composition. Cash prize: $10,000.

Grawmeyer Award: Any piece by a composer of any nationality may be nominated by a professional musical organization or individual. Entry fee: $40. Composers cannot submit their own work. Cash prize: $100,000.

Rome Prize: Any composer who has received an undergraduate degree may apply. A jury selects finalists who must travel to New York for an interview round. Entry Fee: $30 for early submission or $60. Winners receive an 11-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome and a $28,000 stipend.

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize: The award is for lifetime achievement in “serious” contemporary music. It is awarded to either a composer, performer, or an otherwise epochal figure. Cash Prize: 250,000 euros. NB: This article includes only the Siemens Music Prize, and not the Composer’s Prize, which is awarded for a single work by a younger composer.

Polar Music Prize: Anyone who is associated with the music industry may win. An award committee of professionals representing many different genres of music select the laureate from nominations made by various musical organizations (all European). Cash Prize: one million Swedish kronas (approx. $156,000 US).

Here is the spreadsheet, which includes all the winners for these prizes from 1980 to 2013 (non-composers are shown in blue):

composition awards

Noteworthy statistics:

  • Ligeti and Lutoslawski are the only composers to win the Grawmeyer Award, Siemens Music Prize, and the Polar Music Prize.
  • Ellen Taaft Zwillich was the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Boulez and Saariaho are the only composers to win the Grawmeyer Award and the Polar music Prize (without yet winning the Siemens Award).
  • Kurtag is the only person to win the Grawmeyer and the Siemens Award (without yet winning the Polar Prize).
  • Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein are the only Americans to receive a Siemens Music Prize, and both won prior to 1990.
  • The Polar Music Prize – which recognizes the broadest array of genres, disciplines, and nationalities – is the only to recognize Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who are two masters and legends of Avant-garde composition.
  • David Del Tredici is the only composer to win a Pulitze Prize, and then receive a Rome Prize later. Conversely, Kevin Puts, David Lang, and Aaron Jay Kernis all won the Rome Prize, and received Pulitzers later.

These are only a few of the most obvious conclusions to draw from the data present on the spreadsheet.

The total information suggests two things to me: 1) critical success and general recognition have a tendency to snowball over time, and 2) The composers who are recognized by disparate organizations/foundations (one in the US, and one in Europe, for example)  also stand as leaders in the field, and the ability of widely divergent musical sensibilities to recognize their achievements attests to this. Even so, some of the greatest iconoclasts of our time go largely unnoticed, a fact which highlights a truth about all of music history: composers who are truly ahead of their time take the longest to gain general acceptance in the community.


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