Zwilich, Ellen Taaffe (1939—)

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Zwilich, Ellen Taaffe (1939—)

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose works are widely performed and appreciated for their accessibility to audiences of all levels of musical sophistication. Born on April 30, 1939, in Miami, Florida; adopted daughter of Edward Taaffe (an airline pilot) and Ruth (Howard) Taaffe; Florida State University, bachelor of music, 1960, M.A. in music, 1962; Juilliard School of Music, D.M.A. in composition (1975); married Joseph Zwilich (a violinist), on June 22, 1969 (died 1979); no children.


Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize (1974); Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund grantee (1977, 1979, and 1982); Guggenheim fellow (1981); Pulitzer Prize (1983); National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1984).

Taught at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. (1963–64); moved to New York to study violin with Ivan Galamian; worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall; taught theory and music at Mannes College of Music and Hunter High School; awarded position in the violin section of the American Symphony Orchestra (1965–72); began work on doctorate of musical arts in composition at Juilliard (1970), studying under Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions; wrote Symposium, a work for orchestra, premiered by the Juilliard orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez (1973); inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1974); wrote String Quartet (1974); was the first woman to be awarded a D.M.A. in composition from the Juilliard School of Music (1975); won the Pulitzer Prize for Symphony No. 1 (1983), the first woman to receive this award; wrote Cello Symphony (1984) and Symbolon (1988).

Composers, like poets, often live a precarious and nearly invisible existence. Composers of classical music seem particularly ghostly in the public mind, as became apparent one evening to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich when a young member of the audience about to hear one of her works stood during a brief question-and-answer period to ask, "Are you a living composer?" Most definitely among the living, she continues to add to an impressive roster of works in a variety of classical forms built on the teaching of some of the 20th century's most respected composers. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her landmark Symphony No. 1, not to mention the further distinction of being the only modern composer to be mentioned in Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, for her 1997 Peanuts Gallery. ("My part should be longer," Lucy noted.) "There are not many composers in the modern world who possess the lucky combination of writing music of substance and at the same time exercising an immediate appeal to mixed audiences," one music journalist said of her work.

Her work was not always so accessible, however. Born in Miami on April 30, 1939, then adopted by Edward Taaffe, an airline pilot, and

Ruth Howard Taaffe , Zwilich started piano lessons from a local teacher at age five. She enjoyed improvising and making up small bits of music, rather than playing the "silly little" assigned pieces. In fact, she thought hers were better. She also learned to play the trumpet and violin with Brower Murphy, who encouraged her to compose, to learn the orchestral repertoire, and to perform chamber music. Zwilich enjoyed jazz, rock, and classical music, and played in the Coral Gables High School band and orchestra. There, because of the healthy doses of arts once found in American high school curricula, she had her first opportunity to compose and conduct, as concert-mistress of the orchestra. In her senior year, she won the Amidon Award for the most outstanding musical student. "We've virtually given up on our children's arts education," said Zwilich, "failing to recognize that it's not a frill, but a way of looking at and listening to the world."

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich">

People make a mistake by asking music to be something that it isn't. Just listen.

—Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Zwilich studied trumpet, violin and composition at Florida State University in Miami, where she was again concertmistress of the orchestra, under Ernst von Dohnanyi, a highly respected Hungarian pianist and composer. She also played first trumpet with the band and sang with the Collegium Musicum, which performed early music. She was as influenced as everyone else by the mid-century's fascination with the atonality and mathematical complexity of Arnold Schoenberg's serialism. Once she settled on the violin as her instrument, however, she was fortunate to study at Florida State with Richard Burgin, a Polish-born ex-child prodigy of the Romantic school who was known for teaching a precise, Old World technique. She took up composition with John Boda, also classically trained at the prestigious Eastman School of Music and a member of the FSU faculty since the end of World War II. Both men gave her a solid grounding in traditional tonality and harmony. As an undergraduate, she earned three prizes from the Florida Composers League for her compostions: a sonatina for trumpet and piano, a string quartet, and an orchestral piece.

Receiving her master's degree in music from the university in 1962, Zwilich taught music for a year in a small town in South Carolina. She then moved to New York City, where she spent three years as a freelance performer, worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall, and in 1969 married the Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Zwilich who would, in 1974, first perform her Sonata In Three Movements. At the time, Joseph was playing for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. In 1965, she took a fulltime position playing for the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO), then under the baton of an ageing Leopold Stokowski, another Old World proponent of traditional orchestral color. During her tenure, she increased her skill as a composer because she learned about the orchestra from a player's perspective. "I was already aware that I wanted to compose more than I wanted to play," she told Tim Page of The New York Times Magazine: "Composers need some kind of hands-on experience, either as conductors or players, because if you know the orchestral repertory only from studying scores and listening to finished performances, you can't really tell all that's going on in the music. A score is, at best, an indication, rather than a final product, and playing in the orchestra allowed me a firsthand experience of the subtleties that fall between score and performance. I was always listening to the variety of sounds the orchestra made—the problems different instruments had in different registers, the details of the ensemble sonorities."

After seven years with the ASO, Ellen advanced her study of the violin by enrolling at the Juilliard School in 1972. She studied with Ivan Galamian, who had been trained in Moscow and Paris during the 1920s. (Among Galamian's other students were Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman.) But it was composition that had always fascinated Ellen, and it was her good fortune to be accepted as a student by two of the most famous American composers of the 20th century, Elliot Carter and Roger Sessions, both known for their experimentation with Schoenberg's 12-tone system. Sessions had gained a reputation as a "composer's composer" for his complex studies in serial music, marked by textural density and unresolved dissonances underlaid by hints of the romantic lyricism he had learned at Harvard from his early teacher Ernest Bloch. Sessions' Concerto For Orchestra, composed after Ellen's studies with him, won the Pulitzer Prize. Carter, too, had been trained in classical composition (Gustav Holst had been among his early teachers) but was an early enthusiast of Schoenberg's system, which he had modified for his own purposes. Carter's music was known for assigning each individual instrument in an ensemble a distinctive meter, rhythm and register; and he was so taken with giving instruments their own clearly defined identity that his compositions often specified the exact distance performers should sit from each other so that each was distinct to the listener. Igor Stravinsky had so admired Carter's Double Concerto that he had publicly hailed it as "the first true American masterpiece."

After just a year at Juilliard, where she also studied with composers Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening, David Diamond, and Vincent Persichetti, Zwilich's first publicly performed work—1973's Symposium for Orchestra—was presented in New York by the Juilliard Orchestra under French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. Her String Quartet premiered in Boston at the International Society for Contemporary Music World Music Days festival in 1974, quickly followed by the Sonata. These early works, with their jagged melodies, atonal harmonies and structural complexity, reflected the influence of Sessions and Carter. They were much admired by her peers for their technical virtuosity but did not immediately find a wider audience. "Some composers spend too much time trying to be hip and current and end up losing themselves," Zwilich said years later. "People, I think, see through this. You know, the public is not at all stupid." But her compositions of the Juilliard years established her talent, and by the time she received her doctorate from the school in 1975 (the first woman to be so honored), she had made her reputation among her peers. She produced several vocal works for soprano and piano during this period, while the Clarino Quartet—written, unusually, for either four trumpets or four clarinets—was first performed in 1979. It anticipated a later penchant for writing works for instruments not normally given center stage.

Also that year, the Chamber Symphony was commissioned by the Boston Musica Viva. While she was working on the symphony, Zwilich's husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Zwilich was devastated. Finally able to return to the piece, she produced a different composition than she had originally envisioned. "His death taught me nothing so much as the joy of being alive…. Suddenly all talk of method and style seemed trivial; I became interested in meaning. I wanted to say something, musically, about life and living." Chamber Symphony received its world premiere that same year.

With the early death of her husband, Zwilich's music underwent a change, from the sterile intellectualism of the experimental to a more emotional and personal style of writing. Her Symphony No. 1 was the first example. Using more familiar harmonic patterns and thematic structures, the Symphony was the first of

her compositions that seemed to communicate more directly with a wider audience and with her performers, and to depend on a closer integration of instrumental identities. "I think of a symphony as an homage to the artists who keep musical tradition alive," she said. "While of course a huge cast of characters participate in this conversation, it is the performers whose dedication, craft and artistry make it vital." The work, originally called Three Movements for Orchestra, was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Composers Orchestra, and received its premiere by the ACO conducted by Gunther Schuller in New York on May 5, 1982. It was immediately hailed as an important and accessible new work by an American composer. "High modernism has been jettisoned," proclaimed one reviewer, while Zwilich's contemporary John Harbison noted: "You feel the building materials expand and connect, and the process of development is very possible to follow," not something that could easily be said of her earlier work. Zwilich became a national celebrity overnight when the Symphony won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for composition, the first time a woman had ever been given the award and the first significant shift from a long-held tenet of the modernist movement—that women were ill suited to writing modern orchestral music. "Anyone of either sex soon finds out the male numbers theories of composition are all very simple-minded when compared to the real thing," said Zwilich.

By the end of the 1980s, she had been reclassified in the music press as a "neo-romantic" or a "neo-classicist" and found herself being compared to Ravel and Schubert for using traditional forms in new ways in such works as 1988's Symbolon, the Symphony No. 2 (the "Cello Symphony") and her third Symphony commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1992 to mark its 150th anniversary. "She starts with something seminal, consisting of as few strokes as possible," pianist Joseph Kalichstein has noted of her work after premiering Zwilich's Piano Trio, "and makes everything come out of that. People criticize that and say it's too simple … but it's only that she wants you to hear everything, not sit and analyze." There were, too, a host of shorter works for individual instruments during the 1980s, including bassoon, bass trombone and oboe, all of which have not historically had many works written especially for them. All were, and continue to be, widely performed. "I shouldn't say this, but I really am having a wonderful time working on all this music," Zwilich said just before the premiere at Carnegie Hall of her Violin Concerto in 1998. "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven to be able to write instrumental music for the best orchestras and performers of our time."

The Concerto had been written for respected violinist Pamela Frank , who had told Zwilich that she would love to perform "a giant chamber music piece with everybody equally involved," rather than a showcase for her own instrument. Ellen obliged by writing a concerto that, she later said, "didn't call attention to the athleticism of the instrument" and even abandoned the traditional, long cadenza in which the solo violin takes center stage. The Frank Concerto had been written as one of three works required of Zwilich as the first occupant of the Carnegie Hall Composers Chair, created in 1995 to mark the much-applauded restoration of the landmark concert hall. The String Quartet No. 2 and the Peanuts Gallery that inspired Lucy's ire completed the Carnegie triad.

With the consent of Charles Schulz who, as a fan of Zwilich's, had mentioned her in two of his comic strips, she wrote Peanuts Gallery, a six-part character study for piano and orchestra. (Linus' signature music is a lullaby, Snoopy does the Samba, Charlie Brown laments, while Lucy "gets a tantrum in strings.") Though the work may be intended for children, "it's rhythmically diverse and emotionally engaging," wrote Katrine Ames for Newsweek. "(Zwilich left a message for kids in the sheet music for the two-piano version: 'Delete lowest right hand note if hands are small.')"

But her standing as one of the few women actually making a living as a composer hasn't gotten in the way of Zwilich's wellknown nurturing of younger composers, of both sexes. During her tenure in the Carnegie Chair, she inaugurated a "Making Music" series dedicated to the works of living composers, whom she cheerfully interviewed on stage after their most recent works had been performed. She gives equally cheerful interviews herself to journalists from all forms of musical expression, including one young reporter dispatched to see her on the occasion of a performance of her Millennium Fantasy by the Cincinnati Symphony at the turn of the 21st century. Why, he wanted to know, do classical pieces tend to be so long? "There's the kind of food you want to take most of an evening over," Zwilich explained, "and then there's the kind of food you want to get down as quickly as you can and get out and get on with whatever it is you're doing. It probably takes a little longer to make certain kinds of statements."

But even Ellen Zwilich, arguably America's most prolific living composer, with works in every orchestral form except opera, doesn't claim to fully understand her journey from her early days of strict modernism to her warmer, more lyrical works of the past 20 years. "I think I've gotten more expansive and unafraid," she has said of her musical transformation. "I think my music is more generous, more open emotionally. More than that, I don't know."


Ames, Katrine. "The Kids in the Hall," in Newsweek. April 21, 1997.

Innaurato, Albert. "Here Come The Women, Pens at the Ready," in The New York Times. August 2, 1998.

Lanter, Tim. "Of Boy Bands and Tender Maidens," in Citybeat. September 9, 2000.

Morton, Brian, and Pamela Collins. Contemporary Composers. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1981.

The New York Times. May 4, 1983; October 22, 1984; October 27, 1984; October 12, 1986; February 1, 1987; April 24, 1988; April 29, 1988; June 15, 1988; December 31, 1988.

Nichols, Janet. Women Music Makers. NY: Walker, 1992.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.

Schwartz, K. Robert. "A Composer Who Actually Earns a Living Composing," in The New York Times. March 22, 1998.

Slonimsky, Nicholas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. NY: Schirmer, 1992.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York