Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born 1939) was a highly regarded American composer who received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra). Her style of composition is lyrical, well-constructed, and appealing, combining modern tonal language with older compositional devices.
Zwilich was born in Miami, Florida, in 1939 and began writing music when she was ten years old. She received her B.M. in 1956 and her M.M. in 1962 from Florida State University and then went to New York to attend the Juilliard School. While there she studied under Elliot Carter and Roger Sessions and in 1970 was the first woman to receive a doctorate in composition from the school. She also studied the violin under Richard Burgin and Ivan Galamian, and her ability as a violinist earned her a place in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. This experience as an orchestral player affected her attitude toward composition. As she said, "Ultimately, the player is the life-blood of the music, and when I write, I think instrumentally. I never write a piece unless I am dying to write for that particular combination, and if I am writing for orchestra, I want to exploit it. There's a whole stage full of virtuosos! I have great respect for instruments and performers."
In recognition of her talents she received many awards, grants, and commissions and was able to live on her earnings as a composer without the necessity of teaching or performing. She received the Marion Freschl Prize three times while she was studying at Juilliard, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize in 1974, the National Endowment for the Arts composer fellowship grant in 1976 for a concerto for violin, the International Composition Competition "J.B. Viotti" Gold Medal in 1975, and a Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music grant to record the String Quartet in 1977. In 1983 she became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Later she received a Guggenheim fellowship.
The piece for which Ellen Zwilich received the Pulitzer Prize—Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra) —illustrates how her style of composition, although influenced by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Shostakovich, was independent of any one source of inspiration. "I live in a time of enormous variety," she said, "where I have access to music of all kinds and places and times. The idea of influence was more germane when there was a monolithic art world, but there is too much available now to speak of 'direction' in music." In her Symphony No. 1 Zwilich created a piece with long lyrical lines and simple motivic ideas which, though reminiscent of late romantic music, is thoroughly modern and reflective of her personal style.
She completed Symposium for Orchestrain 1972, and it was first performed by the Juilliard Orchestra under Pierre Boulez in 1975. This piece was chosen to be the official U.S. entry in the International Society for Contemporary Music World Music Days in Paris, France. It is a one movement piece for orchestra in which the symposium consists of discussion of a musical topic by various instruments of the orchestra. Thus an opening statement is presented and varied, elaborated, and treated to rather abstract permutations. It is immediately accessible at the first hearing, the structure being lucidly presented, thus allowing the imaginative interplay of the orchestra to be foremost in the audience's mind.
The Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra (1983) is a short piece, built on the interval of a minor second. For all its brevity, it is richly expressive. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra commissioned Zwilich to write Celebration for Orchestra (1984) for the inaugural concerts of the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis. Zwilich included in the piece the musical image of bells as evocative of celebration. In addition, she viewed the work as a kind of test piece for the new hall, creating a wide range of sonority and volume within the composition. The Symphony No. 2 (Cello Symphony) (1985) was written on commission for the San Francisco Symphony. In 1987 Zwilich wrote Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra on commission for the opening of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. It conveyed the moods of the works of five artists—Alice Bailly, Suzanne Valadon, Alma Thomas, Elaine de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler.
The large number of compositions she has written for chamber groups attests to her ability to explore the different sounds possible in small groups. She had a close relationship with the Boston Musica Viva chamber ensemble directed by Richard Pittman. They commissioned several works, one of which was the Chamber Symphony, which they played on their European tour in 1981 and was written shortly after the sudden death of the violinist Joseph Zwilich, husband of the composer. It is written for flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano and projects an elegiac quality throughout. Earlier, she composed a Sonata in Three Movements (1973) for violin and piano for her husband, which he recorded. In 1974 she wrote a String Quartet which Andrew Frank characterized as "brimming with wonderfully musical ideas. The writing for the four instruments is masterly, idiomatic, and resourceful, while happily avoiding cliches so commonly found in much of the contemporary string quartet literature." The Clarino Quartet (1977) was performed first by the Minnesota Orchestra trumpet section in St. Paul and also at the 1979 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. It is written for B-flat piccolo and D, C, and B-flat trumpets and is divided into three movements: Maestoso/allegro vivo, Largo, and Veloce. It also lends itself to performance by a clarinet quartet. The writing is virtuosic and varied so that the timbres of the different instruments are blended with imagination.
The String Trio (1982) is in three movements that contain the same musical idea—a regular pulsation underlying a melodic theme. The use of cyclic themes and the consequent variations are characteristic of much of Zwilich's writing. In her own words, she had "been developing techniques that combine modern principles of continuous variation with other (but still immensely satisfying) principles, such as melodic and pitch recurrence and clearly defined areas of contrast. Thus, while the String Trio is in three movements of differing character (Vivace, Adagio, Presto [Lento]) the whole piece is generated by the same musical material and the cyclical quality of the work will perhaps be recognizable on first hearing, even before the epilogue which emphasizes it." The Divertimento for Flute, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1983), commissioned by the New York State Music Teachers Association, is a light piece in four movements. The Fantasy for Harpsichord (1983) was commissioned by Linda Kobler for her debut at Carnegie Hall.
Intrada (1983) was commissioned by the DaCapo Chamber Players with funds provided by Chamber Music America. It was conceived as an overture to an evenings' program of music, and it serves to present the instruments— in this case flute/piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano— in a vivid way to the audience. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned the Double Quartet for Strings (1984), which combines and contrasts the two groups of instruments. In the first and last movements, they are presented as a unit, but in the second and third, the divisions between the instruments surface. New York Times critic Donal Henahan wrote of the quartet "… throughout her piece Mrs. Zwilich displayed clear-eyed maturity and a rare sense of balance. She writes music that pleases the ear and yet has spine." A National Endowment for the Arts Consortium Commission enabled Zwilich to write the Chamber Concerto for Trumpet and 5 Players, which was performed in several American cities.
Zwilich's vocal works use a variety of texts. Poems by Sandor Petöfi provide the text for the songs Érik a Gabona (1976) and Emlékezet (1978). The second of the two songs was commissioned by the Hungarian singer Terézia Csajbók and is written for soprano and piano. In addition, Zwilich wrote two works based on poems by Hermann Hesse, Einsame Nacht (1971) and Im Nebel (1972). The first piece is a song cycle for baritone and piano and the second for contralto and piano. Trompeten (1974) is based on a text by Georg Trakl which Zwilich translated and set to music for soprano and piano. Passages (1981) is a work for soprano and chamber ensemble which sets to music the poems of A. R. Ammons. It was performed frequently in the United States and abroad in this version and also in an orchestral one.
Zwilich's wide ranging musical interests and creative talents were evident in her 1995 American Concerto for trumpet and orchestra. The work was created for Doc Severinsen, who premiered the jazz styled concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Zwilich described Severinsen as a "killer trumpet player." A long time fan of the Peanuts comic strip, she composed Peanuts Gallery (1997) with the blessings of Charles Schultz, the strips' creator. After a world premiere at New York City's Carnegie Hall, it was reported that both 5-year-olds and adults were cheering.
Zwilich was at the beginning of her career as a composer in 1985, and there are no books yet written about her or about her music. Some of her works have been recorded by Northeastern, Cambridge, and New World records and are good recordings, well worth listening to. Reviews of premieres and performances of her compositions can be found in general publications such as Time and Newsweek. Reviews of recordings of her works by various orchestras can be found in the American Record Guide.