Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Competitive Composing

There are some interesting posts on Musical Perceptions, Renewable Music, and Soho the Dog concerning composition contests, and I can't resist posting one myself.

When I first began writing music seriously, someone advised me to enter composition contests, telling me that Penderecki entered three pieces in one contest and got three prizes. This person proved himself to be kind of a fraud during the years of our association, but being naive and hopeful, I believed what he had to say. I entered a number of competitions. At first it served as a kind of stimulation for me--a challenge to write a piece of music for a specific ensemble. A few of the pieces I wrote ended up being pretty good. They never won any prizes, but my personal prize was to have written a piece of music "to order." I was filled with the spirit of one of my heroes, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and her attempt to generate new music by creating a composition competition back in 1919.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great American patron of new music, moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts with her husband. He had tuberculosis, and the Berkshires were considered a good place for a "cure" because of the air, but he died in 1915, leaving her part of a large fortune. Her parents died the same year, leaving her even more money. With all this money at her disposal, she immediately became a social and musical philanthropist.

Cultural life in the Berkshires was rather limited, so Coolidge had to build a musical life from scratch. She had a son who played viola, and noticing the dearth of good repertoire for the instrument in 1919, she decided to create a "Berkshire Prize" competition for a new work for viola and piano. The pieces would be judged by violists and other musicians, and prizes would be given to the pieces that the violists and other musicians liked best. Music came in from all over the world, and there was a tie for first prize between a work by Rebecca Clarke and one by Ernest Bloch. Because Clarke was a friend of Coolidge, in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism she gave the first prize to Bloch. Both pieces are still "main staples" of the viola repertoire. The sad part of the story for me is that fact that it has been impossible for anyone to even construct a list of the other entries in the competition. What Coolidge probably intended to be a way to exponentially increase the viola repertoire from its pitiful handful of pieces written before 1919 ended up being great publicity for the winners (especially because one was a woman) and added two pieces to the viola repertoire.

And those were the good old days. And that competition was created by a person who was probably the greatest personal force in promoting new music that America has ever seen or will ever see.

Sometimes I fantasize about that list, imagining what pieces might have been entered into this competition. I imagine the devastation that people might have felt from the rejection letters, especially because they were rejection letters from such a great patron. Were those pieces destroyed? Were they written by people who we now know and admire? Were their ideas recycled into pieces for other more popular instruments?

After a few more rounds of the "Berkshire Prize," Coolidge put her efforts into commissioning new music directly from composers, and she did it in spades. I like to think (because she is a hero of mine) that she had the same misgivings that I have in retrospect about all that "lost" music from the composers who didn't win the prize. Maybe, in a best of all possible worlds, those composers were on the top of her list as commissionees. Who knows?

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