In the 1990s, the composer Tania León was named a new-music adviser to the New York Philharmonic. But the orchestra did not play any of her work back then.
It made up for lost time in February 2020, when the Philharmonic premiered Ms. León’s “Stride,” a work both solemn and celebratory, as part of its Project 19 initiative, for which it commissioned 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which barred the states from denying women the right to vote.
On Friday “Stride” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. It is a culminating honor in the career of a composer, now 78, who grew up in Cuba; found a footing writing percussive dance works in New York; created a series of memorable orchestral pieces shot through with intricate Latin rhythmic grooves; and became an outspoken advocate for cultural diversity in music. She has also been a pathbreaking conductor, and currently directs the wide-ranging festival Composers Now.
Ms. León, who found out about the prize as she left her dentist’s office on Friday, said she started crying at the news. “My mother and my grandmother were maids when they were 8-year-olds,” she said in a phone interview. “My family had so much hope for me and the new generation, to give us an education, and when something major has happened in my life, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.”
Inspired by the courage of the women in her family, and by the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, the 15-minute “Stride” isn’t purely optimistic. Forthright brass fanfares recur throughout the piece, a kind of periodic annunciation, and jazzy wind solos squiggle out of the orchestral textures, but a dark, unsettled energy always lurks.
The composer Ellen Reid, who won the Pulitzer in 2019 and was part of the committee that awarded this year’s prize, said she had heard the Philharmonic perform “Stride” at Lincoln Center last year.
“It was one of the last performances before the pandemic,” she said by phone. “Tania has a way of weaving together so many musical traditions with such joy. She’s just such a wonderful ambassador for music, and her love is infectious.”
Explosive bells sound at the end of the piece: “Every time I think about it,” Ms. León said, “I want to hear even more — all the bells in the nation.” But a West African beat shuffles underneath — a reminder that Black women were initially excluded from the right that was granted by the 19th Amendment.
“Under all these bells of celebration,” Ms. León said, “there is still a kind of struggle.”
Struggle, and movement.
“It’s very nice to be recognized,” she added. “But the biggest prize of my life is that I’ve been able to manifest a dream that started in a very small place, far from here, with people who are not here any more. That, for me, is what ‘Stride’ is about: moving forward.”
Joshua Barone contributed reporting.
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