Nemmers Prize Keeps Classical Composers from Offing Themselves

Aaron Jay Kernis won the most recent Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. Northwestern University has called Kernis, a former recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Grawemeyer Award, a "leading musical figure of his generation." Additionally, Kernis's work has earned him a fellowship at the Guggenheim, two Grammy Award nominations, the Rome, Bearns, and Stoeger prizes, and an award from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Despite all these accolades, the first thing Kernis can think to say after giving his thanks for the $100,000 Nemmers Prize is that "[w]riting music is a solitary pursuit." John Luther Adams expressed an almost identical sentiment upon receiving the prize in 2010. Adams said he "worked in relative isolation" as a composer and considered it "deeply gratifying to know that [his] music resonates in the larger world."

Previous to Adams, Oliver Knussen won the prize in 2007 after he wrote a 13-minute elegy for an ex-wife accompanied by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, among several other canonized downers. John Adams (no relation to John Luther) received the prize in 2004 after he wrote The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera about a hijacked cruise ship.

If these guys sound like a gloomy bunch, try a career in classical music composition for a few years and see how you feel afterward.

According to the criteria for the Nemmers Prize, nominations go to composers whose body of work exudes "a unique creativity." Nominations must come from "recognized authorities in the field of classical music, such as prominent artists, critics, scholars, or administrators." While the prize does favor innovation and various modes of envelope pushing, it does not venture far from the composition world's well-established center to seek these things out.

The Nemmer brothers, Erwin and Frederic, left $14 million to Northwestern University after their deaths. The money funds four professorships at the university's management graduate school, the Nemmers Prize in music, and two other $200,000 cash offerings in the fields of economics and mathematics. Northwestern requires recipients to teach in residence at the university for one month.

The press release announcing this year's Nemmers Prize recipients said the school will introduce an additional $200,000 prize in medical science, the Methchild Esser Nemmer Prize, as soon as next year.