‘Litanies,’ Inspired by Notre-Dame Fire, Receives Prestigious Music Award

Julian Anderson’s 25-minute concerto won the 2023 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition

Notre-Dame de Paris on fire
“It was traumatizing to watch such an important icon of civilization go up in flames,” composer Julian Anderson says. Cecile Hautois / EyeEm

When a fire broke out in Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019, engulfing the building’s spire and most of its roof, composer Julian Anderson was in the middle of writing a piece for cello and orchestra. The news devastated him.

“It was traumatizing to watch such an important icon of civilization go up in flames,” says Anderson in a statement. “The experience affected my writing.”

The work Anderson was composing, which would go on to be titled “Litanies,” was also inspired by separate tragedy: The 2018 death of Oliver Knussen, a British composer and conductor. Knussen was also a close friend of Anderson’s, and the composer was writing “Litanies” in his late friend’s memory.

On Monday, a few years after both of the tragedies that inspired it, “Litanies” won the 2023 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, a prestigious contemporary music prize. Administered by the University of Louisville, the honor is awarded annually to a “living composer in a large musical genre: choral, orchestral, chamber, electronic, song-cycle, dance, opera, musical theater, extended solo work and more.” The award comes with $100,000.

“Litanies,” a 25-minute concerto for cello and orchestra, premiered in 2020 at the Radio France Auditorium, played by German cellist Alban Gerhardt and the National Orchestra of France.

“The piece explores virtually every sound a cello and orchestra can make together,” says Marc Satterwhite, who directs the Grawemeyer music award, in a statement. “It spans a vast emotional range and is constantly inventive, but always toward an expressive end, never for the sake of novelty.”

Sadness and sorrow can be heard throughout the 25-minute piece. “There is a sense of time running out,” Anderson tells the New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández, speaking about a cadenza in “Litanies” that gradually fades away.

Securing the Grawemeyer award is the latest in a long line of achievements for Anderson, 55. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra have commissioned his work, and ensembles around the world have performed his pieces. In 2021 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

The Grawemeyer has been awarded to many other big names in contemporary music, including Thomas Adès, Gyorgy Ligeti, Olga Neuwirth and Kaija Saariaho. Anderson tells the Times he hopes the award will raise awareness for the importance of live music.

“There is nothing that replaces the live experience,” he adds. “The joy, the pleasure, the revelation, even, of hearing wonderful music played actually in the room with you, not just on a computer screen with headphones.”

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