9 Film Scores That Deserved a Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prizes, handed out every April, are arguably the most prestigious prizes for journalism, arts and letters, and music in the U.S. Their monetary value is nominal; what matters is the prestige. In this month’s newsletter, I discussed the 2004 changes that came about in the Pulitzer rules allowing film music into consideration for the Music prize. Only one film score has ever won a Pulitzer—Virgil Thomson’s score to the 1948 documentary LOUISIANA STORY. So I thought it might be fun in this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to look back over the years and see what other scores might have been worthy Pulitzer winners.

To write this fictional (and seemingly implausible) possibility, I had to set myself some ground rules. Since the first Music prize was given out in 1943, no scores before that year were eligible. As it states in the Pulitzer rules, the composer has to be American. Rather than basing my choices on any perceived Pulitzer story trends or my own whims, I decided to only include scores that have some Pulitzer relationship already inherent in the film.

None of these scores below were ever submitted for Pulitzer consideration to my knowledge, nor can I find any evidence that film music was even allowed until the rule changes in 2004. (My research hasn’t turned up any reason why Thomson’s was considered in the first place. If anyone has the answer, please let me know in the comments.) So basically this post is all fun and games. In an ideal world, film music would be taken as seriously by the Music jury as the Journalism entries. But, alas, that just ain’t so. Still, each and every one of these scores would have been deserving of consideration.

 

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)

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Martin Scorsese might seem a strange choice to bring Edith Wharton’s classic 1921 Pulitzer-winning novel about 19th century New York high society to the screen. And you’d be right. So what could this 70-year-old story, which had been previously filmed in 1924 and 1934, still have to say to contemporary audiences in the early 90s? Apparently not much. There were some critics who were bowled over by Scorsese’s attention to detail (and it is a lovely movie to look at). But in focusing on the proper place settings and what fork went where, the film was devoid of any emotional resonance. Not so with Elmer Bernstein‘s score. While Wharton’s characters expressed love behind the trappings of their upper crust facade, Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score passionately waltzes around the characters, giving voice to the feelings they cannot. Gunther’s Schuller’s Of Reminiscences and Reflections, while more tonal than many Pulitzer winners, was awarded more in recognition of the composer’s career (which happens a lot) than the piece itself. In awarding Schuller, the jury was looking backward to make up for lost time, but not that far back.

ANGELA’S ASHES (1999)

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Frank McCourt’s memorable Pulitzer-winning memoir about his impoverished childhood in the slums of pre-war Limerick made a difficult transition to the screen. What was moving, humorous and full of hope on the page, even in its darkest moments, was just bleak and depressing onscreen. However, John Williams‘ Oscar-nominated score brought a ray of light to the darkness on display. The memorable minor-key main theme for piano captures the hardships and struggle of McCourt’s early years. While the Irish elements would certainly have hindered Williams’ chances with the Pulitzer jury (they don’t seem to like ethnic flavors in their chosen music), surely the Americana strains of the film’s finale, “Back to America,” would have made them sit up and take notice. When Lewis Spratlan won the Prize in 2000 for a concert staging of the second act of his opera Life Is a Dream, which had had yet to be staged in full production, many Pulitzer followers scratched their heads. Spratlan later became one of the most vocal opponents of the addition of film music to the Pulitzer roster. Shame.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

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When author and poet MacKinlay Kantor (a 1956 Pulitzer winner for the wonderful Civil War novel Andersonville) turned in 434 pages of blank verse for his preliminary treatment of vets returning to their hometown from World War II, fellow Pulitzer winner Robert Sherwood was brought on board to fashion a workable screenplay from the unwieldy tome. Sherwood won three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama—in 1936 (Idiot’s Delight), 1939 (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and 1941 (There Shall Be No Night)—and had dabbled in films, most notably as co-screenwriter of REBECCA. Sherwood’s pedigree and the obviously American story would most likely have garnered some attention for the score as well. Hugo Friedhofer‘s Oscar-winning music is dramatic and beautiful, emotional and raw, without a trace of false sentimentality. You’d think it would have been right up Pulitzer’s alley, though tt would hard to take away Charles Ives’ 1947 Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 3.

CROSS CREEK (1983)

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Yearling. The memorable characters that populate the book were based on her experiences living in the Florida backwoods of Cross Creek, which also served as the basis for her 1942 memoir of the same name. While the 1983 film version was mostly ignored, Leonard Rosenman‘s Oscar-nominated score thankfully was not. Written very much in the accessible Americana style of Aaron Copland, the score is a departure for the composer, who is best known for more atonal works like THE COBWEB, FANTASTIC VOYAGE and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Pulitzers were slowly coming out of decades worth of experimental musical fare, revisiting tonality in works like Ellen Zwilich’s Three Movements for Orchestra and David Del Tredici’s In Memory of a Summer Day. But the Pulitzers seldom embrace full-on tonality, as indicated by the 1984 winner, Bernard Rands’ Canti del Sole for tenor and orchestra.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951)

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In 1951, you have two films based on classic Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas—DEATH OF A SALESMAN and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE—both composed by newcomer Alex North. STREETCAR changed the face of film music, but the Pulitzers, like Hollywood, weren’t ready to embrace jazz (they still have problems with it), so it’s likely they would have ignored North’s groundbreaking work. Even though the film of SALESMAN may not have matched the primal forces of the original stage production, it is a faithful adaptation of the classic play, and Fredric March gives a moving performance as everyman Willy Loman. The coup of the film was securing North’s services to expand his original music for the Broadway production into a full-fledged score. With its harsh tonalities and slippery tonalities, North’s music gives voice to Willy’s pain and shattered dreams. If they gave a Prize specifically for film music, North would most certainly have been a Pulitzer darling, as his style most closely captures the sound of 1950’s American concert music. Gail Kubik’s 1952 winner, Symphony Concertante, has never been recorded on CD and is seldom performed, like many Pulitzer winners, whereas North’s music continues to thrive.

THE HEIRESS (1949)

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Aaron Copland won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for his classic ballet music, Appalachian Spring. While it’s doubtful that he would have been considered for another prize so soon (few composers have won more than one), THE HEIRESS is certainly deserving. The score is one of the few that Copland did not turn into a concert suite, feeling that the music didn’t work outside of the film. The story behind the butchering of his score by director William Wyler for this adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square is legendary. And since Copland was so disgusted at his treatment that he ultimately left Hollywood and refused to pick up his Oscar for the score, it’s doubtful he would have accepted a Pulitzer Prize for work that he felt was tarnished. And it’s obvious by the 1950 winner, Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Consul, that the Pulitzer jury was looking at works with a far more political bent.

THE HOURS (2002)

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Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel interweaves the story of three women around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As haunting as the book is, the film is even better, thanks in part to excellent performances and the emotional score by Philip Glass. Scored for just strings and piano, the music captures pain and loss and gives the film a musical aura and further gravitas. That Glass has never won a Pulitzer, much less been a finalist, is strange, though he’s arguably too populist for the elite Pulitzer jury. If Steve Reich can win a Pulitzer, Glass’ day must not be far behind. Besides, nothing was going to beat the 2003 Pulitzer winner, John Adams’ moving On the Transmigration of Souls, with its moving tribute to the victims of 9/11.

THE REIVERS (1969)

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Better known for his tortured Southern Gothic novels like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner won the second of his two Pulitzers for fiction for the lighthearted The Reivers, his final novel. The coming-of-age story in turn-of-the-century Mississippi is simply told (as opposed to many of Faulkner’s books) and so is the film. But even with Steve McQueen in the driver’s seat, the film is missing the joy of reading Faulkner’s exquisite prose. But John Williams‘ score—with its guitar, harmonica, barroom piano and memorable main theme—captures the innocence of youth and the raucous adventures of the story. Far too tonal for Pulitzer consideration, especially in 1970 when Charles Wuorinen became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer for his purely electronic work Time’s Encomium, Williams’ score is still rollicking Americana for the ears.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

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One of the Pulitzer Prizes, in any category, that few people can dispute is the awarding of Harper Lee for her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. And few dispute the power of the screen version or Elmer Bernstein‘s classic score. All three—the book, the film and the music—are considered high points of their various genres. The 1963 Pulitzer winner, Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, is far more tonal (with a beautiful second movement) than many winning pieces, but still harmonically adventurous enough to please the Pulitzer jury. By this point, Bernstein’s Americana would probably have felt distinctly out of place for Prize consideration. Their loss.

1 comment

  1. Wildly unanimous re: “The Reivers.” Certainly one of Williams’ most brilliant compositions, and the very distillation of Americana. Copland couldn’t have done it better.

    As for Glass, I’d have nominated “Koyaanisqatsi,” a score that expertly offers both support and counterpoint to the main theme of life out of balance, something you’d imagine would be catnip to the nominating committee.

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