Greg Sandow, as usual, completely nails the controversy over the expanded definition of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Composers such as John Harbison and Stephen Hartke are complaining that the prize has been devalued by the inclusion of jazz and other "popular" forms. Sandow stares right through them:
What's really going on here — if you ask me — is a last-ditch defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art. Or, maybe, something even worse. Since just about everybody knows by now that this old idea is totally and completely wrong, I wonder if Hartke, Harbison, and others aren't (whether they know it or not) simply trying to protect their turf, trying to preserve some distinction, some chance at prestige and momentary fame, that might elude them if the Pulitzer prize were given simply for artistic merit [Ed.: my italics; ouch]. Which, I'll quickly say, isn't to say that they write bad music. Not at all. (Even Gatsby is fine, sometimes terrific music; it's just — in the best tradition of Haydn's works for the stage — a terrible opera). But have classical composers created the best and most important American music of the past 50 years? That's the main question we ought to ask. And the answer, pretty clearly, is no. Or, to be more careful, that classical composers have created some of the most memorable music, but very far from all of it.
Amazing that we work in a business where that last sentence is some kind of controversial and necessary declaration, rather than a statement of the screamingly obvious.
I was skeptical when the change was first announced — not because I thought other kinds of music were undeserving, but because I thought the new definition was too vague, too wishy-washy. I still think it's vague, and the way these prizes are chosen suggests that we may have merely expanded the definition for distinguished musical mediocrity. But Greg has made me more optimistic. Any idea that is opposed with such reflexive hand-wringing must have something good in it. The best thing that could happen to new American composition would be to put it in the company of ambitious popular music that is actually being talked about and is part of people's lives.
See also Nat Hentoff's moving account of the anger that Duke Ellington felt when he was denied a prize in 1966 (not the real prize, just a token). I hope the Duke had the satisfaction of knowing that his music will be loved and learned for centuries to come, long after every last person involved with that 1966 decision is forgotten. Come Sunday, they'll be gone.