Wayne Peterson

Wayne Peterson


• 1927 2021


Composer Wayne Peterson wrote dissonant music in an idiom sometimes shaped by the jazz he played as a young man. An important educator, Peterson made headlines in 1992 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music over the objections of the prize organization's jury.

Peterson was born on September 3, 1927, in Albert Lea, Minnesota. His Depression-era childhood was difficult as his father moved from job to job. At age seven, Peterson was bedridden for several months with scarlet fever and began to read enthusiastically, putting him on the road to a college education at the University of Minnesota. He took piano lessons as a child, and the first music that interested him was jazz, which he began playing professionally at age 15, and jazz influences can be heard in some of his compositions. Peterson remained at Minnesota through master's and doctoral programs. In 1953, he earned a Fulbright Fellowship for studies in London, where he worked with Howard Ferguson and Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music. Back in the U.S., he began to find performances for his music, and the Minnesota Orchestra under conductor Antal Dorati recorded his composition Free Variations in 1959. The following year, Peterson began teaching at San Francisco State University, where he remained until 1991. He was a guest professor at Stanford University for several years after that.

Peterson wrote some 80 compositions for orchestral, chorus, or chamber ensemble. He was only moderately well known when he sent in his orchestral composition The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark for 1992 Pulitzer Prize consideration "on a lark," as he was quoted as saying by Tim Page in the Washington Post (April 18, 2021). The prize jury, dominated by academics who had in several cases already won the prize themselves, selected a different work, Ralph Shapey's difficult, hour-long Concerto Fantastique, but the Pulitzer Prize board, consisting mostly of journalists, overruled the jury and awarded Peterson the prize. The jury complained bitterly, and even Peterson himself said he would have voted for Shapey, but he accepted the award, and his career benefited from the controversy. Peterson remained active into his late eighties, issuing the composition Brief Excursion for solo violin in 2014. He died in San Francisco on April 7, 2021. More than 20 of his compositions have been recorded, including The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark, which the Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed on an all-Peterson album in 2017.