Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony no. 1)

performed by The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under John Nelson

third movement here (second movement seems not to be on YouTube. Just go buy the album!)

Throughout the entire Symphony, the melodic and harmonic implications of the first fifteen bars of the first movement are explored. My aim was to create a rich palette and a wide variety of melodic gestures, all emanating from a simple source.

Zwilich, regarding her first symphony

(cover image by NASA)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was born on April 30, 1939 in Miami, Florida. (Per her own pronunciation, Taaffe rhymes with ‘safe’, and Zwilich rhymes with… well, the w is an English one, not a German one, and the -ch makes a k sound.) She earned a B.M. from Florida State in 1960, where she studied (I think) as a violinist. She eventually found herself in New York City, where she played in the American Symphony orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She graduated form Juilliard in 1975, the first woman to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts in composition there, where she studied under Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, among others. Among many other accolades, Zwilich was made Chair of the BMI Student Composer Awards, following Milton Babbitt and William Schuman, making up a trifecta of quite distinguished American composers.

And indeed, she is a composer I have very recently become very interested in, and this piece should show you why. (Zwilich was on a list of standbys, and because I had to swap another piece out for reasons I’ll discuss in a future article, I gave this piece a listen, and was instantly convinced, so… thankfully, here we are!)

Her first symphony was completed in 1982, and earned her the Pulitzer Prize the following year, making her the first female to win the award in music. The work was premiered on May 5, 1982 by the American Composers Orchestra under the baton of Gunther Schuller at Alice Tully Hall. It was commissioned by that orchestra, along with National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim  Foundation. As a fantastic introduction to some of her approach to music, check out the below video, which is excellent.

The work’s Wikipedia article is brief, but makes an important overall statement about the composer’s work, citing James Briscoe and the composer, stating:

The symphony is built around a tonal axis on A and uses a technique common to many of Zwilich’s compositions where the large scale work is elaborated from the initial material, “the fashioning of a musical idea that contains the ‘seeds’ of the work to follow,” along with continuous variationand, “older…principles, such as melodic and pitch recurrence and clearly defined areas of contrast.”

Again, though, given the opportunity to hear what the composer herself has to say about the work, there’s not really much I can add. Her notes, cited at Wikipedia, can be found here.

First, I’ll point out three things that fascinate me, even on paper, before actually hearing the work, or would have if I’d read them before listening.

  1. The above quote. Zwilich discusses “the elaboration of large-scale works from the initial material,” referring to it as “seeds of the work to follow.” That reminds me of one of my favorite composer discoveries, Robert Simpson, whose work seems to unfold and develop from a single pulse, a kernel of an idea (but of course he isn’t the only one).
  2. In the notes linked above, she mentions “techniques that combine modern principles of continuous variation with older (but still immensely satisfying) principles, such as melodic and pitch recurrence and clearly defined areas of contrast.” I’d put that in a block quote, but I can’t in a numbered list. Continuous variation makes us think of Schoenberg, no?
  3. Zwilich’s “great affection for the modern orchestra,” specifically mentioning its “indescribable richness and variety of color.” This comes through in the piece, so let’s talk about it.

Again, it’s a treat to have the composer’s own very clear explanation of what’s happening in the work. She mentions this initial material as a ‘motto’, the use of a minor third, stated three times. Wikipedia tells us the work “is built around a tonal axis on A,” but none of that is really important, and to be honest, even if you can’t follow the development of this minor third motto, the music is scintillatingly powerful. There are three sections: the opening accelerando, leading to a fast allegro, and a surprisingly quiet end.

What we don’t have here is any kind of sonata-allegro form. Rather, we’re given, in kind of a prefatory statement, the building blocks, the foundation, of the entire rest of the piece. And it is absolutely stunning. There’s an almost Mahlerian sound to the opening strings, almost adagio-like, some poignant brass, and even just a minute in, there’s a sense of unstoppable immediacy, incredible momentum, only growing in enormity and excitement with each beat. And even in that final section, when things really cool off, there’s still such a sense of motion, leading the ear toward the second movement.

The remaining two movements are in more traditional forms. The second movement is in “traditional song form” a ternary structure, and it serves as the slow movement. I’m not sure if it’s played attacca, but I don’t think it is. It continues nicely from the somewhat surprising quiet close of the first movement. It’s ethereally still, with celesta in the opening, and exposed harp, bassoon and other winds in the central section, with a few moments that break the almost uneasy serenity, like being lost in a beautiful, unfamiliar forest.

The third movement, also quite traditionally, is a rondo, and hold onto your hats. It is the shortest and fastest of the four movements, and is a pulse-quickening movement from the get-go. It sounds like the piece can barely contain its own energy. The chime of a bell brings a moment of rest, and we can hear the outline of the rondo form.

Here, in this movement, we’re reminded of Zwilich’s statement above of the great affection she has for the orchestra. While the tenderness and warmth of the second movement may have done it for you, here, for me, it’s her masterful use of the orchestra, wringing every drop of power and intensity out of the ensemble, up to the final, heart-pounding close.


This is just an outstanding symphony, and really contains so much stuff I really enjoy in a symphony. There’s a strong sense of motivic development and connection across the movements. There’s a magnificent, alluring sense of drive and fullness to the piece, a taut, nonstop yet sensitive, focused progress. It’s clearly a modern work, with mesmerizing, colorful harmonies from a vivid palette. But most of all, it’s just so enjoyable to listen to. For me, that comes from a combination of all the above things, and more, that create an overall narrative to the work. Again, like Simpson’s music, once you hear it even only once or twice, there’s a sense from the first bars that one, single cohesive journey has begun, like an exhilarating ski down a mountainside, at times thrilling, others harrowing, others serene and quiet, but always 100% enjoyable.

That’s it for this week, and what an excellent week it was, but stay tuned for more posts this weekend and the last week of our American Symphony series next week. It’s been great, hasn’t it?! Thank you so much for reading!

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