Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born April 30, 1939)[1] is an American composer, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her early works are marked by atonal exploration, but by the late 1980s she had shifted to a post-modernist, neo-romantic style.[citation needed] She has been called "one of America's most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers."[2] She was a 1994 inductee into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.[3] Zwilich currently serves as the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor at Florida State University.[4]


Zwilich was born in Miami, Florida, and began her studies as a violinist, earning a B.M. from Florida State University in 1960. She moved to New York City to play with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She later enrolled at Juilliard, eventually (in 1975) becoming the first woman to earn the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in composition.[2] Her teachers included John Boda, Elliott Carter, and Roger Sessions. She first came to prominence when Pierre Boulez programmed her Symposium for Orchestra with the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra in 1975.[5]

Some of her work during this period was written for her husband, violinist Joseph Zwilich. He died in 1979, after which point Taaffe Zwilich refocused her compositional efforts on "communicating more directly with performers and listeners," softening her somewhat harsh, jagged style.[2]

Her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) was premiered by the American Symphony Orchestra in 1982, and it won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, after which point her popularity and income from commissions ensured that she could devote herself to composing full-time.[2] From 1995-99 she was the first occupant of the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall;[6] while there, she created the "Making Music" concert series, which focuses on performances and lectures by living composers, a series which is still in existence.[7]

She has received a number of other honors, including the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, the Ernst von Dohnányi Citation, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and four Grammy nominations. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1999 she was designated Musical America's Composer of the Year. She is currently a professor at Florida State University, and has served for many years on the Advisory Panel of the BMI Foundation, Inc. In 2009 she became the Chair of the BMI Student Composer Awards following Milton Babbitt and William Schuman. To date she has received six honorary doctorates.[5]

Musical career[edit]

Zwilich's compositional style is marked by an obsession with "the idea of generating an entire work – large-scale structure, melodic and harmonic language, and developmental processes – from its initial motives."[2] In addition to large scale orchestral works like Symbolon (1988), Symphony no.2 (Cello Symphony) (1985), and Symphony no.3 (1992), all of which were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, she has written a number of notable, smaller-scale concertos for relatively uncommon instruments. These include works for trombone (1988), bass trombone (1989), flute (1989), oboe (1990), bassoon (1992), horn (1993), trumpet (1994) and clarinet (2002). She has also written a small number of choral works and song cycles. Zwilich's music was conducted by Pierre Boulez at Juilliard in 1975. Her major breakthrough came after winning the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony No. 1. Following this, she was commissioned to work on Symphony No. 2 (Cello Symphony) and Symphony No. 3 for New York Philharmonic's 150th anniversary. Zwilich's orchestral work Symbolon was also commissioned by New York Philharmonic and performed in Europe, Asia and America.[8]


Other symphonic works[edit]

  • Symposium (1973)
  • Passages (1982)
  • Prologue and Variations, for String orchestra (1983)
  • Tanzspiel, ballet in four scenes (1983)
  • Celebration for Orchestra (Overture) (1984)
  • Concerto Grosso 1985 (in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of George Frideric Handel's birth)
  • Symbolon (1988)
  • Ceremonies for Concert Band (1988)
  • Fantasy for orchestra (1993)
  • Jubilation Overture (1996)
  • Upbeat! (1998)
  • Openings (2001)

Concertante works[edit]

  • Piano Concerto (No. 1) (1986)
  • Images (Suite in five movements) for Two Pianos and orchestra (1986)
  • Concerto for Trombone and orchestra (1988)
  • Concerto for Bass Trombone, Strings, Timpani and Cymbals (1989)
  • Flute Concerto (No. 1) (1989)
  • Oboe Concerto (1990)
  • (Double) Concerto for Violin, Cello and orchestra (1991)
  • Bassoon Concerto (1992)
  • Concerto for Horn and String orchestra (1993)
  • Romance for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (or for violin and piano) (1993)
  • American Concerto for Trumpet and orchestra (1994)
  • Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and orchestra (1995)
  • Peanuts® Gallery [nl] (Six Pieces) for Piano and chamber orchestra (1996)
  • Violin Concerto (No. 1) (1997)
  • Millennium Fantasy [nl] (Concerto No. 2 in two movements) for Piano and Orchestra (2000; commissioned for Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, project featuring 27 orchestras in the USA; premiere with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez-Cobos conductor; recorded for Naxos with the Florida State University Orchestra, Alexander Jimenez conductor
  • Partita (Concerto No. 2) for Violin and String orchestra (2000)
  • Clarinet Concerto (2002)
  • Rituals for five percussion and orchestra (2003) (Invocation ; Ambulation ; Remembrances ; Contests)
  • Shadows (Piano Concerto No. 3) for Piano and Orchestra (2011; commissioned for pianist Jeffrey Biegel, 8 orchestras in the USA, Canada and England; premiere with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Miguel Prieto conductor; October 28/29, 2011)
  • Commedia dell'Arte (Violin Concerto No. 3) for Violin and String orchestra (2012)
  • Concerto Elegia (Elegy, Soliloquy and Finale) for Flute and String orchestra (2015)
  • Pas de Trois (Trio) for Piano, Cello, and Violin (2016)

Chamber music[edit]

  • Violin Sonata in Three Movements (1973–74)
  • String Quartet No. 1 (1974)
  • Clarinet Quintet (1977)
  • Chamber Symphony, for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano (1979)
  • Passages (1981)
  • String Trio, for violin, viola and cello (1982)
  • Divertimento for flute, clarinet, violin and cello (1983)
  • Intrada (1983)
  • Concerto for Trumpet and five instruments (flute, clarinet, percussion, double bass and piano) (1984)
  • Double Quartet, for Strings (1984)
  • Trio for piano, violin and cello (1987)
  • Quintet for Clarinet and string quartet (1990)
  • Romance for Violin and piano (or for Violin and chamber orchestra) (1993)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1998)
  • Lament for cello and piano (2000)
  • Episodes, for violin and piano (2003)
  • Quartet for oboe and strings (2004)
  • Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet (2007)
  • Episodes for Soprano Saxophone and Piano (2007)
  • Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet (2008)
  • Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, and Piano (2010)
  • Voyage for String Quartet (String Quartet No. 3) (2012)


  1. ^ Slonimsky, Nicolas (1978). "Zwilich, Ellen Taafe". Baker's Biographical dictionary of musicians (6th ed.). New York: Schirmer Books. p. 1955. ISBN 0-02-870240-9.
  2. ^ a b c d e Schwartz, K. Robert. "Ellen Taaffe Zwilich." Grove Music Online. Ed. L. Macy. Accessed 20 December 2006. www.grovemusic.com.
  3. ^ Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Florida Artists Hall of Fame
  4. ^ Palmer, Anthony J. (Spring 2011). "Interview with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich". Philosophy of Music Education Review. 19: 80–99 – via Project MUSE.
  5. ^ a b "Ellen Taaffe Zwilich." Theodore Presser Online. Accessed 20 December 2006. Available here Archived 2007-10-15 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Women of Historic Note". Washington Post, By Gayle Worl March 9, 1997
  7. ^ Making Music brochure. Carnegie Hall website. Accessed 20 December 2006. Available here Archived 2007-02-03 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Ellen Taffe Zwilich Interview with Bruce Duffie". www.bruceduffie.com. Retrieved 2018-11-13.

External links[edit]