The Gershwin Prize(s)
Last week, Stevie Wonder received The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. This is the second Gershwin Prize handed out by the Library of Congress (Paul Simon received the first such award in 2007), which according to their press release is “to honor artists whose creative output transcends distinctions between musical styles and idioms, bringing diverse listeners together, and fostering mutual understanding and appreciation.”
If you saw any news coverage of this event, most likely it was the clip of President Obama sharing his gratitude for Wonder’s music:
“I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me, we might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”
Some media outlets also drew attention to the artists who paid tribute to Wonder through performances of his music: Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Martina McBride, Esperanza Spalding (go Portland!), Will.i.am, and Mary Mary. There were others, but I missed the PBS broadcast. Obama’s remarks suggest that there was at least one classical musician:
“It is fitting that we brought together artists that represent so many different styles. From Gospel to hip hop, jazz to country, R&B to opera, because Stevie has always drawn on an incredible range of traditions in his music. And from them he has created a style that is at once uniquely American, uniquely his own, and yet somehow universal. Indeed this could be called the American tradition. Artists demonstrating the courage and talent to find new harmonies in the rich and dissonant sounds of the American experience and certainly in the spirit of the Gershwin Prize, named for George and Ira Gershwin who combined jazz and classical music into works of art that have become American classics.”
More on Gershwin in a minute…
What a lot of the media didn’t cover was that the Library of Congress commissioned a new work from Stevie Wonder as well. Titled “Sketches of a Life,” this nine-movement quasi-concerto is scored for piano/electric keyboard/harmonica and a twenty-one piece chamber orchestra. The work was actually written by Wonder between 1976 and 1994–he completed it in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s ascension to the presidency of South Africa. You can view excerpts form “Sketches of a Life” via LC’s website.
The commissioning of this work, which mixes popular and classical elements, makes sense in the context of Gershwin, who did much of the same in his concert works. However, I wasn’t particularly taken with any of the sections that appear on-line. Perhaps a full listen through would change my point of view. I’d love to hear how he incorporates the harmonica. A Washington post reviewer was more impressed: “On a scale of Billy Joel to Elvis Costello, it was Paul McCartney-plus. Meaning, Wonder is one of those pop guys who can do classical.” I would tend to disagree.
In his remarks following the world-premiere of “Sketches of a Life,” Wonder unwittingly raised the memory of Gershwin. In the 1920s and 30s, Gershwin regularly spoke of New York’s “melting pot” and its inspiration on his compositions. Wonder chose the same metaphor, which isn’t used all that much any more due to its assimilation-loaded connotations, when talking about his childhood in Detroit. He credits the melting pot for creating Motown, which I wish he had explained further because I always think of Motown as resulting from a lack of hybridity in the popular music of the late 1950s, not growing out of it…I digress.
This isn’t the first award to be named after Gershwin. There are at least three other prominent Gershwin Awards that I know of, all honoring achievements in American music. Like the Library of Congress award, the UCLA Alumni Association’s George & Ira Gershwin Award (given to Wonder in 2002) is awarded to musicians who have made major contributions to popular American Music and honor a lifetime of work. (UCLA’s award also honors those who have made major contributions to their endowment.)
The two other Gershwin awards, both founded in the 1940s, were aimed at discovering and promoting composers at the outset of their career. The Hollywood Bowl Association’s Gershwin Memorial Award and the B’nai B’rith Victory Lodge of New York City’s Gershwin Memorial Prize both provided $1000 and a premiere of the award winning composition. The stated goal of the latter was “to offer encouragement and stimulation to young American composers.” (Harold Shapero, Ulysses Kay, and Ned Rorem are among the recipients.)
Each of these awards invokes the spirit of Gershwin in slightly different ways and it is interesting to note the divisions between the mid-20th century awards and those of today. The earlier ones promote classical composers and early-career achievement, while those of today award popular musicians and a lifetime of work. Both types map nicely onto the historiography of Gershwin from their respective points of view. Gershwin achieved much early in his lifetime , his commissioned works contributed greatly to the development of American music, ditto for the songs he wrote with Ira. Despite my mixed feelings on “Sketches of a Life,” the composition conjures the spirit of Gershwin at the same time that its association with the LC’s prize merges the various emphases of past awards in the name of Gershwin with the present.
Based on the stipulations laid out by the LC, it the Gershwin Prize is to be awarded to an artist whose work draws “diverse listeners together” and fosters “mutual understanding and appreciation.” I’m curious to see if the next winner will continue their trend of recognizing popular musicians (Simon and Wonder), or, if they’ll branch out and award it to artists whose music also “transcends distinctions between musical styles and idioms,” from the non-popular realm of American music broadly defined (Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, perhaps).
Until then, I’ll celebrate the fact that we have a president who is invested in celebrating music of the “American tradition,” even if his definition is a bit narrower than I’d like.
 “Music Award Arranged,” New York Times, 19 January 1945.