Aristotle warns us to beware of seeking the “life of honor,” as the awards afforded us by others are a poor substitute for the best judge of anything we do, i.e., ourselves. It is true that those of us who depend on the accolades of others can be superficial and shallow creatures looking for outside attention as a substitute for a lack within, but then again, we could just be sore losers that we didn’t get an award ourselves.
In music, the award that everyone loves to hate is the Pulitzer Prize, an arbitrary barometer of classical music elitism since it was first awarded back in 1943. Infamous for its institutionalized Eurocentric and Caucasian patriarchal sensibilities for decades, the process itself became forever tainted when the Pulitzer music jury chose Duke Ellington for the Prize in 1965, only to have the Pulitzer board reject that decision and choose not to give an award at all that year. (Ellington would get a posthumous honorary Pulitzer nearly a quarter of a century later, for his centennial. Chicago composer Ralph Shapey would also be chosen for a Pulitzer by the jury in 1992, only to have the board reject that decision as well.) Slowly but surely, the awards have opened up a bit—there have even been a handful of female and African-American recipients—but still largely continue to be insular. Whatever the merit or relevance of a Pulitzer in music, it is hard not to be struck by the irrelevance of the vast majority of the scores that have actually been given the award virtually since its inception.
And just what piece was actually given the first Pulitzer Prize for music back in 1943? William Schuman’s “A Free Song: Secular Cantata.” Chances are that you don’t know the piece even if you are a relative of William Schuman, as it was then and remains now an obscure work. This is a piece so neglected that scores and recordings are virtually non-existent, which has made the task of the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus presenting performances of it this week a fascinating challenge for its staff and librarian to even track down parts.
Be that as it may, Schuman’s “A Free Song: Secular Cantata” will be performed as part of a program conceived by Grant Park principal conductor Carlos Kalmar called “The Pulitzer Project” that will include the Schuman along with two other early Pulitzer prize-winners: an even more obscure work by one-time Chicago composer and church organist Leo Sowerby called “The Canticle of the Sun” which won in 1946, and one of the only Pulitzer prize winners that ever became a piece of standard repertoire, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” ballet score, which won in 1945, though which will be heard here in its shorter “Suite” version.
In any case, listeners can serve as their own jury and board as to the validity of the choices of these early Pulitzer Prizes in this ultra-rare opportunity to experience these pieces side-by-side with the added incentive of being able to hear them indoors and unamplified in the Harris Theater, but still for free, as always. (Dennis Polkow)
June 25, 6:30pm; June 26, 7:30pm, Millennium Park’s Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, (312)742-7638. Free.