Ellen Taaffe Zwilich | »Femmes4Music«
Portrait of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
a Digital Feature
Sun, December 04, 2022 7 pm CET, Concert
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Gramophone Magazine lists Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in an August 2022 article on the 10 must-hear women composers. The explanation for this is: »A prolific figure, Zwilich’s compositions range from large-scale symphonies to solo works. The works are regarded for their vigour, assertiveness and ability to challenge both the performer and audience.«

Playlist »Femmes4Music« – Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

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Interview with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (*April 30, 1939 in Miami, Florida) began composing in her childhood. Although she came from a non-musical family (her father was a pilot), they supported her musical life and afforded her piano lessons at the early age of 5. During her time in high school, she receives additional training on the violin and trumpet. After successfully graduating from Florida State University, she moved to New York in 1964. There she studies violin with Ivan Galamian, one of the most authoritative violin pedagogues of the 20th century. From 1965 – 72, Taaffe played in the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of renowned conductors such as Leopold Stokowski, Karl Boehm and Andre Pevin. This makes her one of the few women in America at the time to play in one of the country’s most important orchestras. Nevertheless, she leaves the orchestra after seven years of affiliation and instead embarks on a career as a composer.

As a woman, Zwilich makes her mark in several respects. After studying with great composers such as Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, in 1975 she became the first woman to graduate from the Juilliard School of Music with a doctorate in composition. In 1983, she is the first woman to be honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Music for the piece »Three Movements for Orchestra«, later called »Symphony No. 1«. American hornist, composer, conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller performs this piece for the first time with the American Composer Orchestra. Carnegie Hall appoints her to the first Composer’s Chair in 1995, which she holds until 1999. By virtue of these positions, she receives worldwide fame and recognition, although she already gains public attention in 1975 with the performance of her work »Symposium« with the Juillard Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez.

»Femmes4Music« – female composers in focus

As in video art, women are still far from being sufficiently visible in music. Yet sound art in particular, whose boundaries to performance and conceptual art are fluid, has produced many outstanding female artists. With »Femmes4Music«, ZKM presents female composers born between the 1940s and 1960s whose works have achieved great international renown. 

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Sundays on November 20 / 27 and December 4 / 11 starting at 7 pm

After her husband's death in 1979, Zwilich changed her musical-aesthetic way of composing from jagged, atonal harmonies to softer melodies with simpler structures. By 2000, she had produced five major symphonies, as well as dozens of pieces for chamber ensembles, vocal ensembles, choirs, and orchestras. In memory of cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of the popular »Peanuts« animated series, Zwilich composed »Peanuts Gallery« for piano and orchestra, which premiered in 1997. In 2006 and 2008, the piece, performed by the Florida State University Orchestra, is broadcast on television as part of an half-hour show.

In March 2020, the premiere of »Concerto for Cello and Orchestra« takes place. The performance features soloist Zuill Bailey and the South Florida Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sebrina Maria Alfonso.

Since 1992, Zwilich is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and from 2004 on also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2000, she joined the faculty at Florida State University. Throughout her career, she has received numerous awards and honors, including the NPR and WNYC Gotham Award for contributions to the musical life of New York, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and four Grammy nominations. In 1999, she is honored composer of the year by Musical American magazine, America's oldest classical music magazine. She currently holds the Krafft Distinguished Professorship at Florida State University.

»There are not many composers in the modern world who have the good fortune to write music of substance while appealing directly to a mixed audience. Zwilich offers this happy combination of pure technical excellence and distinct communicative power« - Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians [8th ed.]

Author: Dominique Theise

Composers of the series »Femmes4Music«
Meredith Monk (*1942 in New York City, USA)
Kaija Saariaho (*1952 in Helsinki, Finland)
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (*1939 in Miami, Florida, USA)
Jennifer Higdon (*1962 in Brooklyn, New York, USA)