Earning a B.M. from Florida State University in 1960, Ellen Taafee Zwilich began her professional career as a violinist. After moving to New York City to work with Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra, Zwilich enrolled at Juilliard, later becoming the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Musical Arts in composition. Her teachers included the notable Elliott Carter and legendary Roger Sessions. She came to prominence when Pierre Boulez programmed her Symposium for Orchestra with the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra in 1975.
The American Symphony Orchestra premiered her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) in 1982, and, astonishingly, it won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, catapulting her public recognition to stratospheric levels. Moreover, the income she derived from subsequent commissions ensured that she could devote herself to composing music full-time. From 1995-1999, she was the first occupant of the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall; while there, she created the "Making Music" concert series, which focused on performances and lectures by living composers.
She has received a varaiety of other honors, including the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, the Ernst von Dohnányi Citation, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and four Grammy nominations. She has been named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1999 she was designated Musical America's Composer of the Year.