April 30, Birthday of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has the distinction of being the first female composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music in 1983. Let that sink in for a moment. THE PULITZER PRIZE WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1943.

She got her bachelor’s in music from Florida State (my second alma mater) in 1960 then went to Julliard and in 1975 became the FIRST WOMAN TO EARN DOCTOR OF MUSICAL ARTS in composition.

I’m really sorry for shouting.  It’s just that it’s outrageous that so many wonderful composers are unknown to the world simply for being women.  Men usually give the lame excuse that they always do (for racism, sexism, and most other -ism), that there’s no bias and that if there were really good female composers, they would rise to the top being recognized and rewarded as they are.  Here’s Ellen Zwilich’s perspective on the matter:

‘Why have there been so few women composers? It’s simple: We were, for the most part, denied access. Still, we’re finding out that there were some women who continued to compose, knowing full well that they’d never hear their music. It’s an incredible testimony to the creative spirit.

Compare writing a poem to creating a piece of music. Once you’ve got those words down on paper, they’re there forever, and don’t need any realization. But a staggering amount of people were involved in the creation of my Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), for which I won the Pulitzer. There was the Guggenheim Foundation, which helped sponsor it; the MacDowell Colony, where I wrote the beginning, and, of course, the American Composer’s Orchestra, all of whom put their collective faith into my symphony and allowed me the time to complete it. Now, go back 100 years and compare the situation: nothing of the sort could possibly have happened, because society simply didn’t recognize female achievements. (New York Times, July 14, 1985).

While in grad school, her music was described as jagged and atonal–which was the style of the time.  However, after her husband, Joseph Zwilich–a well known violinist at the Metropolitan Opera–died of a heart attack while watching the Stuttgart Ballet perform at the Met in 1979, her music shifted and again in her own words, she described the change as a desire for “communicating more directly with performers and listeners.”   And it’s telling that you can’t find any of her pre-1979 works on Youtube.

To demonstrate her range, I’ve selected seven works from the over 50 videos of either her music or interviews with her on Youtube.  I hope you enjoy discovering her as much as I have.

First Movement from Symphony No. 1 (“Three Movements for Orchestra”) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, 1983)

Symphony No. 3 (1992)

Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet

Concerto for Trumpet and Five Players

Fantasy for Solo Violin



About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

10 Responses to April 30, Birthday of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)

  1. kvennarad says:

    I find her music very ‘classical’. Thanks for this selection.

    A couple of thoughts come to my mind. Bear with me.

    Firstly, with all due respect to your efforts, isn’t the necessity of male advocacy a symptom of the problem?

    Secondly, I love Bach’s early works, especially in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. It occurs to me that one thing we need to do is stop referring to composers by their surnames only. Part of the problem is that we are obliged to refer to ‘Schumann’ and ‘Clara Schumann’, thus creating a gender weighting that privileges the male. It’s a small point, and one that I would expect to get the gibe “PC Police!” for ‘out there’, but that’s not the point. Remove the privilege, improve the clarity, and it’s the clarity that’s really important.


    • kurtnemes says:

      I wonder about that too. What is the alternative for men then who see the injustice? Is advocacy a paternalistic approach? What about being an ally? Is bearing witness enough? If there are sympathetic men, we’re clearly not in the majority, so will it have any affect to say “I’m going to give up my male privilege” when there are so many who are not going to? Isn’t that just a drop of water in an ocean? Writing about it is one way I thought that I could do something. I don’t think you’re PC. I think men need some constructive suggestions on how to help. If it’s just negative criticism about how feeble our attempts are, it may have the opposite effect than intended. With the election of Trump, I worry for my daughters, grown women now, who in any situation they might encounter, there may be men whose goal is establishing a utopia like that depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has been turned into a mini-series. 🦋

      Liked by 1 person

      • kvennarad says:

        “Is advocacy a paternalistic approach?” – Unfortunately, given the circumstances, it can’t help but being so, no matter how good the intention. On the other hand it’s better than nothing. My own point of view is often classified (by others) as ‘intersectional’. In fact I don’t really recognise the ‘sections’. If anything I believe that liberation is universal or meaningless. The ‘sections’ are constructs; unfortunately they’re ‘hard constructs’, which means we do tend to bark our shins on them.


      • kurtnemes says:

        Funny: two weeks ago, I only had a vague notion of intersectionality, and now I am working to raise awareness about it as part of my job. Is ally a better thing?


      • kvennarad says:

        Heaven knows! It’s all so confusing these days.


  2. kurtnemes says:

    Help me out here. If I can’t be an advocate or an ally, it seems the only options is to quietly walk away like the Brits did in India.


  3. kurtnemes says:

    By the way I love “liberation is universal or it’s meaningless.” May I borrow that? Or as the poet Marshall says, “liberation is universal or it’s meaningless.”

    Liked by 1 person

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