Competitions are, as Bartok famously pointed out, for horses. I won a few when I was in my twenties, and quickly decided that they were great professionally, but a bit hard to deal with artistically. I found myself thinking too much about why I had won, or worse, why I hadn’t won.

So I stopped entering competitions, for about fifteen years. Not a great choice professionally, I suppose, but professional success makes me queasy when it isn’t coupled with artistic growth.

Many composers consider composition competitions hopelessly corrupt, with the prize seldom going where it is most deserved. I haven’t completely subscribed to that notion myself, but I suppose it’s a half-empty/half-full perspective – to me, awarding the most deserving work in any competition is such a difficult proposition, it’s a wonder any competition ever comes close to succeeding.

In any case, I’ve started entering competitions again in the last few years. There are a few reasons. First of all, I feel more established in what I am trying to accomplish as a composer, and less prone to letting myself get too self-satisfied or too disheartened by the outcome. Secondly, I’ve come to realize the almost-too-obvious: that all competitions, however corrupt they may be, were originally established by a person or persons who honestly wanted to help living composers out. That’s an idea I can support.

Seems to me there are many more composer competitions now than there were when I stopped entering in the late 80s. Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if we let them be the sole definer of quality. But it may be good in the long run, because it means that each prize carries less weight in the grand scheme of things.

I learned last week that my Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra won a nice prize from the International Horn Society. The news is gratifying, and also an opportunity to take a closer look at the phenomenon of composition prizes.

First of all, I’m very proud of the piece, which, as I reported about a year ago here, I worked on for about nine months, then completely rewrote in two weeks. As proud as I am, though, I am also aware of a few defects in the music – moments that don’t quite accomplish everything I had hoped. In other words, I have the same relationship with this piece that I have with all of my music – appreciative, but highly critical, and wanting to do better next time.

This particular competition had anonymous entry, which is always reassuring – I hate to think that people are judging what they may believe they know of me, rather than the music itself.

Out of respect for the judges, it would be appropriate to assume that my piece stood out simply as quality music. But there are two aspects to the work that I think may have helped my cause in this competition. First of all, the scope: it’s a twenty-minute concerto, after all, and that has to be more impressive than, say, a five-minute piece for solo horn. This is speculation, of course, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a jury would think that way.

Secondly, the recording I sent in featured David Jolley as the soloist. Again, the competition was anonymous, so the jury wouldn’t have known that they were listening to David, unless they were unusually acute horn aficionados (which may be the case). But they had to at least recognize that they were hearing horn playing on the very highest level, which certainly could have played into their response to the piece.

So was my concerto the best in an absolute sense? Well, I’m not much of a believer in objective standards for music. In other words, I can easily imagine several “bests” in the competition, depending on what each judge felt was most important in a new work. It’s possible that my piece was “best” by one or more of these subjective standards. But I also know that the size of the piece and my good fortune in having the opportunity to write for a topnotch performer could have worked to my advantage.

So I accept the prize for what it is: an acknowledgement of accomplishment, though the exact nature of the accomplishment may be in question. I’m too seasoned to read any larger significance into it. Mostly, I appreciate the time and effort the jury has put into trying to make life for a few composers a little more pleasant. That’s a worthy endeavor, regardless of the outcome.

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