Leonie Sonning’s Music Prize
- a short history of the music prize which by rewarding each era’s greatest musical artists attempts to preserve and develope the performing and creative arts’ quality and expression at the highest level.
Leonie Sonning’s Music Prize has been awarded since 1959 to an assortment of, on the one hand, the most popular stars such as Bernstein, Menuhin, Segovia and Anne-Sophie Mutter, and on the other hand, composers such as Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich, Boulez and Per Nørgård. Plus some of the greatest jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett.
When Leonie Sonning decided to use her fortune by awarding an annual music award to the greatest musicians, there was no doubt that the monetary size of the music prize was the most important consideration. However, today the financial reward is not the most important aspect for a performer when agreeing to receive the Leonie Sonning Music Prize. The reason that the award has kept its value over the years has been that the Board of Directors, which is also the prize committee which chooses the award recipient, has almost without exception chosen correctly. As a result, the list of prize recipients has historically included the absoulte greatest performing musicians and singers. To be included in this renowned company of recipients is worth more than gold and as such the Leonie Sonning Music Prize is considered more than other comparable awards as music’s Nobel Prize. The list of recipients is even more impressive because the Danish music prize is by far the oldest compared to the two other renowned European music awards (the German Ernst von Siemens Prize and Sweden’s Polar Prize).
It is solely the artistic quality which is decisive when choosing who should receive the prize. No matter how well paid and famous the prize’s recipient is , the prize’s list of the last 50 years will always constitute the strongest argument for accepting. The challenge facing the Music Foundation’s board members is to sustain the integrity of the list, to find the most important composers, musicians, conductors and singers and thus preserve the attraction, prestige and spirit of accepting the prize.
The Lady behind the Music Prize
Leonie was born on May 1, 1887 into a wealthy family, which made certain that she was sent as a young girl to a pension in Germany and afterwards to a convent school in France. She subsequently studied literature history and art history at the Sorbonne University in Paris and in England. She was finally educated as an actress!
At the age of 36 she married (at such an exotic location as The Register Office at the British Museum in London) the eight year older journalist and author Carl Johan Sonning. In the 1930’s he made a fortune in real estate and willed the money to the establishment of a large cultural award –The Sonning Award. In 1950 his widow, Leonie Sonning, awarded her husband’s first prize to Winston Churchill.
Leonie Sonning was very interested in European art and culture and her life’s work was to make certain that the monument to her husband survived and thrived. This small and elegant woman of the world loved to be in the limelight and to be the center of attention. For many years it was Mrs. Sonning who presented her husband’s award; the first time as mentioned to Winston Churchill and later to among others Albert Schweitzer, Niels Bohr and Sir Laurence Olivier. However, fifteen years later she established her own award, an annual music prize in her own name.
The Establishment of the Music Prize
There are two Sonning awards, Carl Johan Sonnings’s, which is administered by The University of Copenhagen, and then the one his widow Leonie established. In 1959 after having donated a music award to Igor Stravinsky, she decided to make the Music Prize permanent in 1965. The financial foundation consisted of three residential properties in Frederiksberg and in Søborg, which Mrs. Sonning included in her will to finance the prize on the condition among others that the properties never be sold. Since then two other properties have been purchased and the rental income from these two plus the three original properties comprise the fund’s capital.
The original terms from 1965 still apply to this day. The purpose is to distribute an award to an internationally renowned composer, musican, conductor or singer, who should come to Denmark to personally accept the prize and, if the recipient is a perfoming artist, perform in a concert ( if possible, on May 30th ,Carl Johan and Leonie Sonning’s wedding day). The name of the recipient of the award should as much as possible be publicized only after the previous selected artist has received his or her award.
Along with the large music award the intstrument of foundation can also award scholarships to young, talented music students.
The foundation should also make sure that Carl Johan and Leonie Sonning’s place of burial in Frederiksberg Cementary is maintained and that every year flowers are placed on the burial site on their birthdays and on the day the Music Award is presented.
Leonie Sonning’s Music Foundation was established on December 29th, 1964. This was possible especially thanks to composer and music critic Børge Friis as he was instrumental in persuading Mrs. Sonning and he also sat by her side for many years at foundation committee meetings. That it occurred at this time was mainly due to that fact that the year after, 1965, was the one-hundred year anniversary of the composer Carl Nielsen’s birthday and Mrs. Sonning had promised the organizing committee that the first music award should be presented to Leonard Bernstein “as a result of his position in the world’s music establishment in general, especially in his phonograph recording of Carl Nielsen’s 5th symphony, and his thoroughly documented interest in and deep understanding of Carl Nielsen’s music”.
A condition was that Bernstein should personally come to Copenhagen to receive the prize and conduct. On May 17th a large audience attended in the presence of the Danish king Frederik IX and his daugther princess Benedikte, as Berstein conducted Carl Nielsen’s 3rd symphony. The concert along with Berstein’s recording of the symphony heralded an international breakthrough for Carl Nielsen’s music.
The First Concert
However, the first time that the Music Prize was presented was already in 1959, where Mrs. Sonning presented the first prize to the composer Igor Stravinsky. This was an impromptu award presentation which five years later led to the establishment of the Music Foundation.
At the award concert Stravinsky conducted with The Royal Danish Orchestra his own “Firebird”, with the King and Queen in attendance. On this occasion the Chancellor of The Royal Danish Academy of Music, composer Knudåge Riisager, addressed Stravinsky and said among other things:»With the establishment of the Sonning Award for music, Denmark has the possibility of honouring renowned names in the world of music. This is the first time that the Sonning Award is presented, and actually it is the first time ever, that an artistic award of such considerable size is presented in this country… Denmark is, as we all know, only a small country. But it is a small country with a very great and invincible belief in the certainty that not power nor strenght but, on the contrary, spiritual force and the source’s strength in coming years will carry mankind forward towards a more valuable existence. Therefore it is we who are honoured that you agreed to come here and receive this award, so that we have the oppurtunity of expressing our gratitude that your life’s work has reinforced the correctness of this conviction, this belief.«
When it is decided
The instrument of foundation for Leonie Sonning’s Music Foundation states that the aim each year is to present a music award, “a gift in acknowledgement of one’s services that cannot be applied for”. The music prize must be given to “figures who are internationally recognized as composers, musicians, conductors or singers”. It is a condition of acceptance that “the award recipient personally participates at a musical performance, preferably in Copenhagen, according to the board’s decisions”.
A gift of acknowledgement to an internationally recognized person. The word “recognized” represents the primary description and can be said to be a ‘Jutlandic’ understatement, as the Music Foundation’s board searches naturally for the “greatest” of the great. But what is that? Solely artistically or artistcally and human? Only within classical music or also in other areas? An artist who during a long life has proved his or her greatness or a young artist possessing lofty talents. And should there be diversity among the four recipient types which are mentioned by the intrument of foundation? Or should the Music Prize solely be an awards presentation with a concert or should it leave a mark and give meaning to Danish music?
These are some of the considerations included in the decision making process. And when the award recipient’s name has been decided upon, the work begins to locate the recipient and arrange the prize ceremony. This often involves an endless exchange of emails, letters and faxes, often between the Music Foundation and the artist’s agent but not necessarily directly with the artist.
Well deserving celebrities or young talents?
The Board of Directors of the Music Foundation naturally discusses the criteria for the choice of the award winner at regular intervals, especially the problem regarding whether the award should be presented to artists who have reached their career peaks and who are at a mature age or even old age, or should the board choose an award recipient among young artists with an obviously bright future?
It was like this at a board meeting on July 7, 1970, where “there was agreement that it must be right to present the prize to an artist who had not passed his or her peak”. Nine years later the board again discussed the prize criteria, without coming closer to a decision other than to agree “that the prize recipient, besides representing the best within their art form, should also appear as an inspiring person and as a meaningful symbol beyond their own artistic endeavours”.
In 1986 the then Chairman of the Music Foundation calculated that the average age of the prize recipients was 61. He would rather, in any case now and then, concentrate on those artists who had more of a future. As examples he mentions (the year is 1986):
- Anne-Sophie Mutter (23 years old, who received the prize 15 years later)
- Kyung Wha Chung (38, to this date she has not received the prize)
- Gidon Kremer (39, who received the prize three years later)
- Martha Argerich (30, to this date she has not received the prize)
- Andras Schiff (32, who received the prize 11 years later)
- Krystian Zimerman (30, who received the prize 8 years later)
It was not only the Foundation’s board that noticed the recipients’ ages. When Krystian Zimerman only 38 years old received the music prize one newspaper critic wrote that “he is possibly the youngest recipient ever of a prize that is typically given to musicians who through a long life have had a decisive influence on their time period.”
When the question of age has been discussed there have been two issues which have occupied the Board of Director’s minds; a fear of not getting it right. In other words, would this promising artist live up to the expectations? Or a fear of being critized by the public; if we choose the young, promising artist instead of the renowned composer, what would the reactions be if the young artist fails to live up to expectations?
The list of soloists, conductors and composers, who with certainty should receive the music prize stretches to the infinite. Time passes, the decision makers set the great stars’names aside and the possible recipients get older and older. Some pass away before they are offered the prize and others with time become too old to be able to perform at the prize concert. The most fortunate cases are of course the ones where the prize recipient has many years left.
Through the years the reluctant approach has been the order of the day (let’s wait and see how he or she develops), even though it is much more fun to look deep and far at an earlier point and then put your money on the great talent.
Only artistic quality qualifies!
The instrument of foundation of the Music Foundation is certain that when the decision is reached concerning who should receive the prize, that only clearly musical qualifications should be considered and every question of nationality, race, religion, political leanings or economic position should be left out of consideration.
Of course it is like this. The prize recipient’s good deeds in other connections than music have never played a decisive role. Daniel Barenboim’s courageous humanitarian commitment was not decisive in his receiving the prize, but that a prize recipient beyond being a great artist has also had enormous music paedogogical importance can count for extra on the scale when the great names are balanced out. On the other hand, a former chairman said in the prize speech to Mstislav Rostropovich, that it is a decisive idea that our prize recipients are not solely great musicians, but also great personalities...It is my conviction that music and personality belong together.
It is not always possible to separate music and personality, or perhaps it can be accomplished, but in any case one is influenced either negative or positive by the personality and fails to see the whole musician. Thus it is always a good idea to have more than one person involved in the discussion and making the decision. It is the totality, music and personlity, which is precisely a part of the instrument of foundation’s music proficiency qualificatioins.
Neither should nationality play a role in the decision making process. However, the board has sometimes considered nationality. For example, in 1978 after giving the prize to Messiaen in 1977 should they also give it to Marie-Claire Alain the following year, also because they came from the same country and represented the same instrument.
However the gender of the prize recipient is not mentioned in the instrument of foundation. It was discussed in 1986 that up until that time there had only been one female prize recipient. The chairman of the board wrote that “only one woman among 18 instrumentalists or composers. This is disgraceful... I believe that this is close to discrimination”.
It can only be considered discrimination if there is an equal amount of well qualified from each gender, and since then the distribution between female and male prize recipients, without having taken the gender balance into consideration, has corrected itself to the point that the list of recipients today includes eight women.
Classical music or...?
The instrument of foundation of the Music Foundation mentions nothing regarding which musicians or composers should receive the prize. Composers and performing artists within classical music, jazz, rock or ethnic music? After Leonie Sonning had established the foundation and in those years when she was chairman, there was no doubt; the music prize was to be given to classical music artists. But culture is not a constant. The musical establishment goes its own way and music culture developes along unpredictable paths in spite of genre characterizations and previously fixed rules.
The first time that Mrs. Sonning’s approach was broken was when Miles Davis received the Music Prize. At some point, the foundation’s board also discussed whether the prize could be given to a music paedagog, for example, the Japanese violin paedagog Suzuki. Unfortunately it proved impossible due to foundation regulations.
The arguments for keeping the Music Prize as a classical music prize are partly because it was Leonie Sonning’s opinion and partly because there is a need for large classical music prizes to keep attention on the importance of classical music and quality in relation to rhythmical music which is often more commercial and as such automatically garners attention.
The arguments for not keeping the prize strictly classical are that there are many non-classical musicians and composers of high quality, artists who have been or still are major influences on the musical establishment in a broader perspective.
The most fundamental reason for keeping the Music Prize in the classical genre, as it will probably remain in the coming years, is the makeup of the Board of Directors where expertise and thus concentration are centered on classical music and new composition music.
An argument which has sometimes obliged the board to delay a possible prize recipient a year or two is the question; should there be a balance between singer and instrumentalists, conductors and composers or between strings, winds and pianists? If you look at the statistics for the 48 prize recipients the picture in 2010 was:
Flute and Recorder Players
1 Viola Player
It is not surprising that one-fourth of all prizes have gone to composers. Generally this distribution should not be surprising, as the goal is not to achieve an equal distribution between the different instruments or people from the world of music. These statistics always represent a warning signal which can get the board to peruse in detail those instrument types which are less represented on the list. In other words, inspiration.
However there are instruments which have never been represented in the Music Prize during the years, among others, saxaphone, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double-bass, harp, percussion or acccordion. It is also strange that a popular instrument, both with composers and the public, such as the clarinet, is not included in the list.
At times the interesting question arises of whether the prize can be given to an ensemble, a trio or a quartet. Tradition has held the board of the Music Foundation to the idea that the prize is only presented to one person, but according to the instrument of foundation the goal is “to present the gift in acknowledgement of one’s services... to people who are internationally renowned as composers, musicians, conductors or singers”. Solely one person is not mentioned and attorneys say that giving the prize to an ensemble is not excluded if each member can be said to have lived up to the highest standards.
There have been times when the members of the board who were especially interested in new music leaned towards the idea that there ought to be a balance between creative and performing artists when the prize is awarded. Composers on the other hand have not been overlooked.
In 1970 there was a discussion that if the possible recipients were on an equal footing in regards to “worthiness” the prize should be distributed among artists within different branches of the musical establishment. But just as often as the “balance argument” has been used the discussion has ended, as it did in December 1973, where the minutes of the meeting state that there was agreement that the primary consideration should be the individulal’s worthiness as prize recipient and not a rotation between different groups of artists.
The awards concert
Leonie Sonning had decided in the instrument of foundation that the presentation of the Music Prize should take place on her wedding day the 30th of May. However, the precise scheduling of the event was always a logistical nightmare. Even after Mrs. Sonning’s death in 1970 the board still attempts to schedule the concert at the end of May, but the possibilities for compromise are more numerous now than when she lived.
One consideraton is the date, the other the location. It states of course in the instrument of foundation that the concert should take place preferably in Copenhagen where there is a large audience and a large opera with many orchestra possibilities. However the Music Prize is for all musically interested Danes and as such the concert has sometimes taken place outside of the Danish capital.
The Music Prize’s Danish significance
Many prize recipients, but not all, already have a relationship to Denmark and the Danes have a relationship to them. Nevertheless, in the many instances where the prize recipient does not have a relationship to the Danish musical establishment, it is the aim that the relevant parties build a relationship in connection with or as a result of the Music Prize.
The Music Foundation has often initiated and supported initiatives which give the year’s music prize a wider Danish perspective. What happens around the annual music prize concert is very important for the Board of Directors of the Music Foundation; other concerts, speeches, master classes, journal and book publicatons, film production etc. in connection with the Music Prize.
As such, the presentation of the Leonie Sonning Music Prize has many times been an event that stretches over time and place.