The world’s top composer prize has turned into a sorry in-joke

The world’s top composer prize has turned into a sorry in-joke


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2019

The Grawemeyer Award – a life-changing $100,000 prize for the best composer of the year – hit rock bottom this week with the selection of a Californian academic, Lei Liang, who had a climate change piece performed in Boston.

Last year’s winner was Joël Bons, a composer so obscure he lacks a Wikipedia entry.

The award is being driven out of public attention.

No major media – Slipped Disc included – bothered to report this week’s announcement.

Consider, in real world terms, who might have been worthy of the 2019 Grawemeyer:
John Adams
Mark Anthony Turnage, new concertos
Olga Neuwirth
Missy Mazzioli
Mason Bates, new operas
Nico Muhly
Kalevi Aho
Hans Abrahmsen

What’s wrong with these candidates? First, you’ve actually heard of them. Second, they’re performed around the world.

The people controlling the Grawemeyer seem determined to run it into oblivion.



  • Elizabeth owen says:

    Well the people you list are all well known and possibly wealthy. Maybe this award is to encourage people just starting???

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Absolutely not. The first winners were Lutoslawski, Ligeti and Birtwistle.

      • FrauGeigerin says:

        NL is right. The Grawemeyer Award is an A-list award since the mostly review and consider pieces premiered by major USA Orchestras and they are usually not open to young unknown composers.

    • J says:

      Alas, composers of concert music are never ‘valued’ in the same way as, say, conductors…

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The composers mentioned are hardly wealthy. The truth is that composers struggle to make much of a living from having their pieces performed. The money really would make a difference to their lives.

  • piano lover says:

    I consider that after Mozart,Beethoven===up to prokofiev and shostakovitch:everything has been said.
    No use trying to compose in modern times with money and competition being the only values.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ‘Everything has already been said. But because nobody listened, it has to be said again.’ Andre Gide.

      A composer in the 10th century discouraged his students if they wanted to write music: ‘You should only pursue such ambition if you really cannot help it, because there has already been written so much good music, everything has already been done.’

      And then, so much was still to come in those days:

      The problem with 20C music seems to be a psychological one, not a musical one: the human capacity for invention is, in principle, unlimited. But what is invention? What is the creation of something new? This is what Debussy, the composer of unequalled originality who both revolutionised music and whose works entered the regular repertoire, had to say on the subject:

      ‘They call me revolutionary, but I have invented nothing new. I have just taken familiar things and given them a new guise. In art, nothing is new.’ How to understand this? I think as follows: artists of inborn, given original personality structure, take little elements from what they see and hear, and mix them in ways according to their personal taste and insights, and the result is new and original. It is inborn personality, not willful originality, which creates meaningful newness. Hence the problematic nature of much music of the last century.

  • John Borstlap says:

    First, being ‘performed all over the world’ is no indication of artistic worth, since no music is more popular and world-embracing than the most primitive pop music. Second, ‘the best composer of the year’ is as nonsensical as any ‘top list’ being produced by commerce – who is going to decide on which basis and according to which standard. and what are the accolades of the comitee members? Third, making an assessment about a composer’s artistic worth as if this could be an objective verification of fact, is nonsensical: the meaning of an oeuvre is gradually established through a long historical filtering process which takes many years and is also dependent upon historical circumstances. In the lifetime of composers, reactions to their work may be correct (positive or negative) but it is only in the course of time that true worth is emerging. We only have to think of Shostakovich, whose music was so collectively condemned in the West by the professionals and which has now entered the regular repertoire. And Beethoven was famous and respected in his life time, and hailed by many people as a ‘genius’, but the real establishment of his worth only happened long after his death, as the positive responses at the time also had a mirror image of rejection, which petered-out in the course of the 19th century.

    Imagine that someone had asked a bunch of professionals in 1910 who were ‘the best composers’ at the time. Surely the answer would have been: Saint-Saens, Strauss, Puccini, and Massenet. Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky were still contested in spite of their fame, but later assessments gave a different perspective, not to speak about Schoenberg who was a marginal figure but exercised an immense influence later in the age (in 1910 nobody would have believed such a thing were possible).

    It seems to be much better to spend so much grant money in smaller doses to encourage young composers, known or unknown, in their development.

    • “Shostakovich, whose music was so collectively condemned in the West by the professionals and which has now entered the regular repertoire”. Really? Why was the first symphony such an instant success in so many countries, especially as it was a work completed when its composer was just 19 years of age? And has Shostakovich only “entered the regular repertoire” more recently? He has had and still does have his detractors, to be sure – from Boulez on the one hand to Robin Holloway mcuh more recently on the other – but he has nevertheless been a household name for many decades.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, but that was only in terms of practical performance, and on a much smaller scale than today. He was an unusual thing, out of the box. Academics, critics and practically ALL people involved in one way or another in postwar modernism, had a low opinion about S, as if he were a composer forced by the authorities to occupy a place entirely outside the ‘real’ development of history in the 20th century, and a further demonstration of the ‘bad taste’ and ‘conservatism’ of classical music audiences, nothing more. If you read music history books from the sixties or seventies, that will become clear.

        Example: in the widely-read Grout History of Western Music (1960, 1973, 1980) Shos gets only a short paragraph of some 5 lines, merely mentioned in passing, and a comparable treatment gets Prokofiev, a little longer paragraph, also in passing, as if these were merely some minor marginal figures (p. 692).

  • Tristan Jakob-Hoff says:

    The winner of the 2016 award was recently named in the Guardian as the best piece of classical music of the 21st Century. (The composer is on your list, incidentally.)

    The winner of the 2017 award has been performed nearly thirty times around the world, by conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Marin Alsop, David Robertson and Matthias Pinscher.

    Of the latest winner, Gramophone wrote: “Liang’s tonal and textural palettes become ever more exquisite, ranging from sonorities at the edge of silence in ‘Healing Rain Drops’ to full-orchestral might describing the shredding of landscapes. Liang’s Chinese-inflected sound world is never less than fascinating and always deeply involving. The BMOP navigate their way through his precisely calculated sonorities with aplomb and accuracy.” I’m listening to it now. It’s kind of Lachenmann-esque, and certainly aurally appealing.

    I don’t think we’re *quite* at the point where we can write the award off in its entirety.

  • Eric says:

    I’m pretty sure that the previous winner is always one of the judges. Certainly that used to be the case. I’m not suggesting any nepotism but it does mean that 33% of the judges are less likely to think outside the(ir) box in a sense.

  • Eric says:

    Adams and Abrahamsen have already won it.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Well argued, Mr. Borstlap. I thought also of Mahler, who in 1910 was in the last year of his life, with “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Ninth still to be premiered. And Rachmaninoff, whose standing also fluctuated, was 37 and actively composing. In fact, 1909 was a big year for him. Sibelius was 45 and had done most of his work.

  • Olassus says:

    (emergent in the 1940s) Rorem; (1950s) Floyd; (1960s) Andriessen, Birtwistle, Bolcom, Corigliano, Kurtág, Musgrave, Pärt, Penderecki, Sondheim, Wuorinen; (1970s) Abrahamsen, Glass, Gubaidulina, Harbison, Reich, Reimann, Rihm, Silvestrov, Williams; (1980s) Adams, Benjamin, Tower, Zwilich; (1990s) Adès, Danielpour, Golijov, Neuwirth, Tan, Turnage

  • James says:

    Well, Hans Abrahamsen won it in 2016 and John Adams won it in 1995. You can only win it once, so you can strike those two names off your list for a start. Which pieces would you have nominated for each of the others?

  • Simon says:

    You may not know Joël Bons, but he’s a major Dutch composer who’s taught generations of students at the Amsterdam Conservatory and worked with many new music ensembles. I would suggest you use the discovery of a new name as an opportunity to learn something new, instead of bombastically trumpeting the already-well-knowns

  • Benjamin Staern says:

    Don’t forget Djuro Zivkovic who won some years ago.

  • Karl says:

    Yes – Mason Bates is good. I’ve liked Michael Torke’s new works. I would also like to advocate for a less well known composer named Reena Esmail. They play her new works in Albany at their American Music Festival. She has a wiki page too!

    The so called Atlanta school has some excellent composers: Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Theofanidis. The biggest ovation I have ever heard for a new work was in Boston for Gandolfi’s “Ascending Light” a few years ago.

  • Joseph Trivers says:

    I’d like to echo the sentiments of Simon “the discovery of a new name as an opportunity to learn something new” and the award to Mr. Liang looks like a wonderful opportunity to explore his music. A cursory glance at his website and recordings suggests he is far more than just an “academic”. His parents were both musicologists, and he himself has produced recordings of Bach. Let’s listen to the music first before dismissing it.

    • John Porter says:

      Liang is a wonderful composer. This appears to be another instance of people trashing someone whose work the haven’t heard or read. As for wether or not you’ve heard of Liang before, no one had heard of Caroline Shaw before she won her Pulitzer and now she is performed quite frequently.

  • Eric says:

    Some of this is very misinformed. First of all, winners can win only once. So, John Adams (1995, Violin Concerto) and Hans Abrahamsen (2016, let me tell you) are ineligible going forward. And, second of all, your claim to not report it was undone by your post here, even if it had a different purpose and agenda.

  • MacroV says:

    The fame of the composer is beside the point; what’s the quality of the piece that received the award? If the award recognizes a great work by an unknown composer, nothing wrong with that.

  • Perhaps his music actually was better?

    It’s not an award for “most performed” or “most written about”, is it?

  • Nomen Nescio says:

    “…who had a climate change piece performed in Boston”. Next, a movie starring Greta “Garbo” Thunberg, with both a Nobel and an Oscar.

  • Mr. Knowitall says:

    The award is not for “best composer of the year.” It is for a single composition.

  • Aren’t the composers nominated by their performers to the Grawemeyer Award? The organizers and jury do not know necessarily what pool of nominees they are going to get. Perhaps this year the pool included many emerging composers—perhaps an anomaly— who surely were evaluated anonymously. I definitely intend to listen to the music of the winner. It is the Grawemeyer award, after all!

  • trilby says:

    It astounds me that someone purporting to be a musician and a journalist would write something like this about a composer they are unfamiliar with who wrote a piece they haven’t heard.


    Perhaps we should consider the possibility of spending time discovering the work of Lei Liang. Complementary to the concerns expressed here, competitions like this often get accused of always favoring the already famous. But the organizations commissioning or premiering a work are the ones who nominate. I understand that the anonymous jury judges blindly. So, in my opinion, this was the honest win of a respected but not yet world-famous composer.
    I, for one, plan to go listen to works by Lei Liang. He may be a fabulous composer, now discovered widely thanks to the Grawemeyer. The publicity in such an well-known forum like SD can make a difference.