For 30 years, Mr. Peterson had been a composer, pianist and professor at San Francisco State University, respected by most musicians who knew his work and highly regarded by his students. The Pulitzer — and the ensuing squabble — changed his life.
Another composition, Ralph Shapey’s hour-long piece for orchestra, “Concerto Fantastique,” had been the unanimous choice of the music jury — George Perle, Roger Reynolds and Harvey Sollberger, all distinguished composers and academics. Perle and Reynolds were past Pulitzer winners.
But the Pulitzer board, which oversees all Pulitzer prizes and has traditionally consisted mostly of newspaper editors or publishers with an occasional author or scholar, overruled the jury and voted to give the prize to Mr. Peterson.
It was not the first time that the Pulitzer board had rejected distinguished work for reasons of its own. For the drama prize, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was dismissed in 1963 as insufficiently “uplifting,” while Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” (another unanimous choice) was ruled too “overwritten,” “confusing” and “obscene” in 1974.
But 1992 was believed to be the first time in the history of the music prize that the jury’s choice was not accepted, and the three composers on the jury went public with their displeasure.
“The Peterson is a wonderful piece and almost any other year, it would have been our first choice,” Perle, the chair of the jury, said at the time. “But the Pulitzer Prize board is not professionally qualified to reverse our decision.”
Shapey, known for the fury, intensity and sustained dissonance of his music, difficult for players and listeners alike, weighed in. “I’ve been up for a Pulitzer year after year and I can’t get a Pulitzer,” he said. “Now the jury unanimously decided that I was going to get a Pulitzer. And I did not get a Pulitzer.”
All of which left Mr. Peterson in a tough spot. “I had sent the work in as a lark,” he told the New York Times, “and I didn’t think I had even a remote chance of winning.”
He went so far as to say that he himself would have voted for the Shapey piece had he been on the jury. But he accepted the prize.
Mr. Peterson’s award has stood the test of time. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2017 after a Boston performance of “The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark,” critic Allan Kozinn called it a “rewarding work, built of quickly shifting, angular figures that bristle with tension and are punctuated by high-energy, sometimes brutal chordal bursts. … This is intensely kinetic music.”
Wayne Turner Peterson was born in Albert Lea, Minn., on Sept. 3, 1927. At 7, he was bedridden for months with scarlet fever, which inspired a lifelong love for reading.
During what Mr. Peterson would later recall as an unhappy childhood, he studied piano and took a particular interest in jazz. By his late teens, he was touring with a big band and one could often hear the influences of bebop on his later music.
Awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1952, he studied in England at the Royal Academy of Music, where he worked with the composers Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson. He taught at what became San Francisco State University from 1960 to 1991 and was a guest professor of composition at Stanford University from 1992 to 1994.
In all, Mr. Peterson wrote more than 80 works for orchestra, chorus and chamber ensembles. His awards included fellowships and commissions from the Guggenheim, Koussevitzky and Fromm foundations as well as an award of distinction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The 1992 prize and the resulting controversy changed the way the Pulitzer board judged music. It had long been the practice for the jury to name three potential candidates with one singled out as the winner. But the 1992 jury decided that it would present the Shapey work and refused to back down when asked to follow the long-standing Pulitzer rules.
When told that there would be no award for music that year if the jury did not provide at least one more work, Mr. Peterson’s piece was submitted. At one point in the jury’s deliberations, it had reportedly been the first choice. But the jury emphasized that it was recommending Shapey’s work as the sole winner, with Mr. Peterson’s as the runner-up. The board then voted to award the prize to Mr. Peterson.
Answering the jury’s protest in 1992, Walter Rugaber, then the publisher of the Roanoke Times and a member of the Pulitzer music subcommittee, made a counter-argument to the Times that “the Pulitzers are enhanced by having, in addition to the professional’s point of view, the layman’s or consumer’s point of view.”
“These are works that are performed in concert halls, and which thousands of people hear,” Rugaber added. “And I think it is not inappropriate for people who are not professional musicians, composers or performers to listen to the best that the professionals recommend, and to express an opinion that one is more interesting than the other.”
The Pulitzer Prize for music had long been considered problematic and hidebound. Its 1974 laureate, Donald Martino, summed it up thusly: “If you write music long enough, sooner or later someone is going to take pity on you and give you the damn thing.”
Among the American composers who didn’t win the prize, which was established in 1943, were Duke Ellington, John Cage, Morton Gould, George Rochberg, Leonard Bernstein and, as it turned out, Shapey. No female composer won until 1983 (Ellen Taaffe Zwilich for her Symphony No. 1) and not until 1997 was jazz or pop music admitted into the Pulitzer pantheon, when Wynton Marsalis won for “Blood on the Fields.” In 2018, Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” became the first hip-hop work to be so honored.
After 1992, the size of the Pulitzer jury was increased. Jurors were no longer permitted to pick a top choice but were required to submit the candidates in alphabetical order, with no hint of a preference.
Mr. Peterson’s marriage to Harriet Christensen ended in divorce. His partner of 42 years, Ruth Knier, predeceased him in death by seven weeks.
Survivors include four sons from his marriage, Alan Peterson and Drew Peterson, both of Greenbrae, Calif., Craig Peterson of San Rafael, Calif., and Grant Peterson of Chico, Calif.; and two grandchildren.