BWW Interviews: Composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Has Found Her Bliss
The compositions of multi-talented Ellen Taaffe Zwilich appeal to a wide-ranging audience in all corners of the globe. Her unique style is instantly recognizable. Her works have been commissioned and performed by the world's most prestigious orchestras and chamber ensembles. Zwilich, who also studied violin at Juilliard, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, among many other awards. From the New York Philharmonic to Charles Schulz's iconic comic strip, Zwilich has established a much beloved presence in the public eye. This weekend, Jahja Ling and the San Diego Symphony will perform this prolific composer's work, Upbeat.
Zwilich and I first became friends when her late husband Joseph Zwilich was one of my violinist colleagues at the Met Opera. They generously gave me rides home after late-night performances. I was happy to reconnect with her.
EM: It's so great to catch up with you after all these years. Congratulations on your astounding body of work and well-deserved kudos over the past decades. I'm so very impressed with all you've accomplished!
ETZ: Thank you. I've gotten very lucky over the years to be able to do what I most want to do and to get paid for it. It's amazing.
EM: But you happen to be so brilliant at it. When did you first become interested in composition, as opposed to the fiddle?
ETZ: My family was not musical but there was a piano in the house. I discovered it when I was a toddler and they couldn't get me off the bench after that. [Laughs] It was like, "Go out and play with the kids." But I was absolutely mesmerized. I didn't start writing things down until I was about 10, but I was making up things and improvising things, just having a wonderful time making stuff up. I loved to compose and earned my degree in composition.
EM: With Roger Sessions, a formidable guy to study with.
ETZ: He was wonderful. I've been asked what I got from Sessions and I can't come up with concrete answers, but while I worked with him I became who I was as a composer. I think that's about the nicest tribute you can give to any teacher. He made me become who I was. I don't know how he did that, but he was wonderful for me.
EM: You also studied with Elliott Carter. Was that at the same time or afterwards?
ETZ: I was only with Elliott a very short time at Juilliard, because Sessions was away. But we remained friends virtually until the end of Carter's life. When he was 102 the French Consulate honored him with a party and we were invited. He was in a wheelchair but sharp as a tack. Somebody took a picture of the two of us. When I saw the picture I realized he had a glass of champagne in his hand. I thought, "That's my goal in life, to get to 102 and have a glass of champagne in my hand." [Laughs]
EM: I'll drink to that. What were some of your earliest works and successes?
ETZ: I always like to write for people. My Violin Sonata in three movements was for (husband) Joe. That always means something to me. To feel the other person in the room, so to speak. At Florida State, which had a very fine school, everything I wrote got played right away, whether a string quartet or a piece for orchestra or for band, I seemed to be able to get things played right away. That was incredibly important to me. I hadn't gotten to where I wanted to be as a composer so I decided to give it my all and see what I could come up with. That's when I went to Juilliard in composition.
EM: In New York you also played.
ETZ: When I first got to New York I hadn't done what I really wanted to do with violin. I wanted to play better so I auditioned for (Ivan) Galamian. He was a stickler for technique and that's what I thought I needed. I had gotten to the point where I was either going to break the fiddle over my head [Laughs] or I was going to get better at it. That's something I thought about composition too, a little later. I had written stuff and it was getting done but I had never gotten to the end of the piece and thought, "That's just what I want to do." That's when I decided to give it a big shot and try to make something of myself as a composer.
EM: Which of your earliest works did you feel were successful?
ETZ: I wrote a piece in '81 called Einsame Nacht, for baritone and piano, based on Herman Hesse. It was the first time I wrote something and said, "This is me." I would do it differently today, but it made me feel that I had my voice. I almost hate to tell this to young composers because in the arts people become who they are much later in life. I was involved in an interesting symposium called "On Composing" that had all kinds of visual artists, writers, poets, novelists, architects and even mathematicians, which was fascinating. Almost everyone said they usually were discouraged from doing what they loved to do because it was impractical. We all had kind of a similar experience in common.
EM: What are some of your recent works?
ETZ: I have a recent recording featuring the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio - a trio, septet and quintet. These people have been in my musical life for a very long time, and we are very close. The inspiration they give inspires me. We have a new recording out, Passionate Diversions. I'm very happy with those pieces. Two of them are quite recent. We had Michael tree on viola for the quintet and Hal Robinson from Philadelphia, an astonishing bass player. It's not unlike the Schubert, actually - the same instrumentation as the "Trout" Quintet. I even sneak in a little bit of a quote. [Laughs] The septet is for piano trio and string quartet. I'm very happy with that recording and with what it represents. It's like just another wonderful chapter.
EM: Tell me about Upbeat that's being performed in San Diego this weekend.
ETZ: It's a concert opener. You'll recognize something in it [sings Bach unaccompanied violin partita in E major]. It's kind of a takeoff on that. I did it for the National Symphony quite some time ago.
EM: Do you feel you've helped break the glass ceiling for female composers?
ETZ: I think the time was right. I don't take credit for it, but if I got my foot in the door and somebody else is enabled from that I'm thrilled. I didn't have much experience with the anti-female thing. When I went to high school we had behind-the-screen auditions. You didn't win or lose because you were a girl. When I was in the American Symphony there were a lot of women in the orchestra, very unusual in the 1960s.
EM: You've composed every genre except Opera. Have you considered writing one?
ETZ: No. I occasionally write for voice but I have no desire to write an opera. It's not something I would be interested in doing. Writing instrumental music for me is like I died and went to heaven. I write stuff and people play it. It's just miraculous. I would have to take a tremendous amount of time off and go live at the opera house and get it into my bones. I know enough about it - I used to play stage band at the Met. But it's a very complicated medium, more like theater than instrumental. One of the things at issue with me today is that so much control has gone to the stage director, partly because the contemporary composer may not really have a grasp of what's going on in the house. I think that's a shame. Also, I think generally you either have a love or gift for one or the other. There are very few composers that can really do both well. Even Richard Strauss with his wonderful tone poems - do they have any comparison to Elektra, Salome, Frau Ohne Schatten and Rosenkavalier? No. He just came alive in opera.
EM: Very good point.
ETZ: Years ago I was contemplating an opera commission I was offered that sounded really nice. I'd gone to Pittsburgh to hear their performance of my First Symphony. I had heard the piece a few times at that point and had a little bit less of the opening-night jitters. Sitting there listening to this wonderful orchestra bring my piece to life I thought, "Oh my God, I have died and gone to heaven." I went right back to New York and turned down the opera commission. Why would I do something that's not my dream? Maybe it's a fancier thing for a composer to do, more publicity, this that and the other thing. But it's not my dream.
EM: You found your bliss and you're sticking with it.
ETZ: Yes. [Laughs] There you go.
Photo Credit: Theodore Presser