Choosing composition as your life’s work means a challenging career ahead. Hundreds of years ago, job security meant finding a patron who would feed and house you and expect you to produce a pretty constant stream of music for their court orchestra. If you were lucky and well-connected, you might also have a thriving career writing opera for the public or publishing piano music for students and music-lovers. But the percentage of composers who can make a living just from composition has always been relatively small, and it is still true today. One of the most successful composers out there right now is Aaron Jay Kernis, and LACO will be performing one of his works in their upcoming concert. Kernis’ Viola Concerto will make its Los Angeles debut with Paul Neubauer as soloist. It’s sure to be a wonderful experience.

Aaron Jay Kernis has had a very productive career thus far; he’s been recognized by the professional organizations ASCAP and BMI, and he has won a number of very prestigious awards in his field. He’s also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He won the Rome Prize in 1984, which allows for a year of writing and study at the American Academy in Rome. Previous winners include Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Lukas Foss. Kernis’ work Colored Field received the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2002. Kernis continues to collect accolades, and he’s sharing his particular ideas and talents with thriving university programs. He is composer in residence at Northwestern University (made possible by the Nemmers Prize) and he is also in residence at New York’s Mannes College.

One of the jewels in the crown of this already amazing career is Kernis’ 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Music, which he won for the String Quartet No. 2. At the age of 28 at the time, Kernis was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer in Music. I only learned there was such an award in the late 90s, when my former theory professor, Melinda Wagner, won for her Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion. Since then, I’ve wondered about the origin of the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

The Pulitzer Prize was set up by Hungarian-born newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. His papers, New York World and St-Louis Post Dispatch favored high quality writing and investigative journalism. Pulitzer was incredibly supportive of the idea of a school of journalism, which would properly train writers at the university level to create content for newspapers and other publications.

In his will drawn up in 1904 (he died in 1911), he left money to Columbia University with the stipulation that they begin a school of journalism (it was founded in 1912) and award the Pulitzer Prize celebrating excellence in various fields. Pulitzer named a few awards: four in journalism, four in letters and drama, and one in education. There were also scholarships for travel. Among the letters awards were ones for an American novel and an American play (which had been performed in New York). The first set of prizes was awarded in 1917. There is both a certificate and a cash award for each prize. Pulitzer understood that times would change, so he was not overly rigid in his stipulations. In fact, he established a board that would oversee and advise the awards, so that they could replace subjects or add subjects, and respond to the changing times. Currently, the Pulitzer foundation gives out awards in twenty-one categories. In the 1990s, the Plan of Award committee responded to the proliferation of online content by expanding the definition of entries. This change was amended further in 2006.

The Pulitzer Prize for Music was added in 1943. At first, only art music entries were considered, but again, Pulitzer’s understanding that times would change allowed for a broadening of the category. In 1998, the definition of eligible music became more inclusive towards more mainstream musical styles. Things seemed to be moving in that direction already; in 1997, Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” which displayed strong jazz influences, took the prize. So once the Plan of Award committee made the change officially, other composers who had been overlooked received some late recognition. In 1998, George Gershwin was honored on his hundredth birthday, as was Duke Ellington in 1999. In 2007, Ornette Coleman’s live jazz recording Sound Grammar won the award, the first to take such an honor, and it was validation of the progress towards an acceptance of the diversity of American styles.

Although the Pulitzer Prize is not without controversy or detractors, Aaron Jay Kernis’ inclusion in the pantheon of winners is ultimately a coveted honor. To receive such a prize so early in one’s career,  it must have felt to Kernis incredibly encouraging. And Kernis has made good on the promise he showed. Not content to sit idly after winning an award (or many awards!), Kernis has shown that each new honor just encourages him to write more, add nuance to the development of his style, and contribute to the rich diversity of the American music tradition.