Why does the Gershwin prize always go to a pop artist?

They’ve just given it to Willie Nelson.

Previous winners (since 2007) are Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. ‘The selection … is made by the Librarian of Congress in consultation with board members selected for their expertise in various fields related to music.’

Oh yeah?

Then why has there been no winner from Gershwin’s specialist fields of opera, piano and orchestral music?
gershwin piano


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  • Peculiarly Gershwin is renowned for writing the first successful American opera.

    That must be why they’ve awarded it to a sequence of safe, mainstream artists who stand in no need whatsoever of the Award or its prize-money.

    But then again, just recently here on SD we had a whole parade of Americans lining-up to say that American has no classical music – and that music in today’s USA is represented by Smokey Robinson and ‘Shorty Trombone’.

    It must be utterly miserable being Jake Heggie, Carlyle Floyd, Philip Glass or John Adams these days. Perhaps they ought to take up the trombone? Or the banjo.

    • Did you not read Sam Reising’s entry? The prize is for Popular Song, another field in which Gershwin excelled, and for which probably a lot more know him than know his classical work. So the selected recipients are more appropriate, whether they are one’s own favourites or not, for THIS prize. Which should answer Mr. Lebrecht’s question.

      As to why not Stephen Sondheim: that’s quite a good question. But they do seem to have avoided musical theatre and stuck to “pop” popular. In the history of that genre, it’s not a bad crowd.

    • It is indeed the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Someone is seriously questioning Paul Simon, or Stevie Wonder, or the others? To quote Sondheim himself, I’ll let you know when Jake Heggie has a hit.

  • Good debate. First off, the Gershwin Prize was created by a couple of saavy producers, in collaboration one supposes, with the Library of Congress expressly as A PBS showcase concert. In recent years, it’s been mixed with the Live from the White House series, a dubious concept which draws a handful of tribute artists of varying abillity into a less than 50 minute “special”.The Bacharach-David airing retained a paunchy and unfunny Mike Myers (a terrible singer, by the way), and excised Dionne Warwick, who had been associated with the songwriting duo through most of their collaborative years. Paul McCartney has been a less than terrific songwriter on his own, so why not make his tribute to Lennon-McCartney. Was it because of Lennon’s controversial politics during the time J. Edgar Hoover was trying to deport him. Sondheim, of course, is in a class by himself, but has, basically had one pop hit on his own: “Send in the Clowns”. But, if pop success is a criterion her, Bob Dylan has had dozens of tremendously successful covers, and a number of pop hits on his own. Why not throw a bone to one of the most singular songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century?

  • From this list, what Bacharach and David do is closest to what Gershwin did for most of his career; far closer than any classical composer.But the real surprise is the lack of anyone from music theatre – the genre in which Gershwin produced probably about 90% of his work.

    • Indeed: and the very nature of “popular” song is that, while it may endure, it is ever-changing, as tastes and musical styles evolve. which in a way makes Dylan a more significant omission than Sondheim. They do seem to be looking at standalone songs, and the point above about Sondheim’s oeuvre is on the money. Sir ALW has more songs that people sing than SS.

  • Usually to honor operatic music,you’d have to go back to the 18th century,which most of it comes from. You can honor music in theater rock,country-western and pop. My choice would be Bob Dylan,Brian Wilson or even Andrew Lloyd-Webber. You just missed Chuck Berry.

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