This week the Consonant Classical Challenge profiles American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. For the first part of her career, Zwilich wrote in an agressively atonal style, perhaps reflecting her studies with Elliot Carter. Her first symphony, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, is a good example of her earlier style.
By the late 1980s, Zwilich had moved to a more tonal style of writing, which some characterise as post-modernist (or just neo-romantic). According to her website, "Ms. Zwilich combines craft and inspiration, reflecting an optimistic and humanistic spirit that gives her a unique musical voice."
Perhaps because of that, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is one of the most successful living American composers. Her works are frequently performed and recorded, and as recently as 2012 was still filling commissions.
Zwilich's late style may be tonally based, but it's a far-ranging tonality. Her melodies often have wide leaps that recall those of atonal composers. Those leaps, and the way they're harmonized give the melodies strong emotional impact.
The Lament for cello and piano, written in 2000, lays bare the essence of Zwilich's style. In it, one can hear the wide melodic leaps that give the music its piquancy.
In addition to studying with some of the major composers of the 20th century, Zwilich was also a member (early in her career) of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Zwilich's first-hand experience as an orchestral player shows in her music. It's both imaginative in creation and practical in execution. Her third symphony, completed in 1992, demonstrates both these qualities.
Zwilich sometimes incorporates older forms into her music. Her Concerto Grosso (1985) was written for the Handel Tricentennial. Although the instrumentation (which includes harpsichord) and the work's structure may be Handelean, there's no mistaking Zwilich's unique compositional voice.
According to her website, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has been called "one of America’s most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers." And with good reason. Her music is well-constructed, genuinely has something to say, and is both player- and listener-friendly without making any artistic compromise.
(this is but a sampling of the works available on recordings)
Music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Zwilich: Millennium Fantasy; Images; Peanuts Gallery
Zwilich: Passionate Diversions