The Kennedy Center

Quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello, and bass

About the Work

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Composer: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a native of Miami, Florida, began playing piano, violin and trumpet as a youngster, and was composing music by the age of ten. In high school, she was concertmaster of the orchestra and first trumpet in the band, wrote some pieces for both groups, and occasionally served as their conductor. She did both her undergraduate and graduate work at Florida State University, where she worked with the distinguished Hungarian composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnányi; after a year of teaching in South Carolina, she went to New York for advanced coaching on violin with Ivan Galamian. She supported herself in New York as a free-lance violinist, and in 1965, joined the American Symphony Orchestra, founded just two years before by Leopold Stokowski. She counts her practical experience as a performer among the strongest influences on her compositional style.

Increasingly attracted to composition, Zwilich enrolled at the Juilliard School, where she studied with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, receiving her doctorate in composition in 1975, the first woman to earn that degree from the school. In 1993, she joined the Juilliard faculty; she currently holds the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professorship at Florida State University. Zwilich's creative work came to public notice when Pierre Boulez conducted her Symposium (1973) with the Juilliard Orchestra, and the ISCM World Music Days in Boston in 1976 premiered her String Quartet 1974. In 1983, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra); she was the first woman to receive that award for music. Her other honors include the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, election to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Alfred I. duPont Award, G.B. Viotti Composition Competition Gold Medal, election to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, four Grammy nominations, grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, Library of Congress, New York State Council on the Arts, Norlin Foundation and Guggenheim Foundation, and honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, Manhattanville College, Marymount Manhattan College, Mannes College/The New School, Converse College and Michigan State University. The City of Cincinnati proclaimed September 23, 2000 "Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Day" in honor of the premiere of her Millennium Fantasy by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jesús López-Cobos, and she was named Musical America's Composer of the Year for 1999. She has received commissions from the Indianapolis Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and other leading ensembles and performers. From 1995 to 1999, Zwilich was the inaugural appointee to the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in which capacity she advised and collaborated in the Hall's contemporary music programming, commissioning program and educational events, and composed three works. In a significant effort to support today's emerging composers, in 2009 she became Chair of the BMI Student Awards.

Zwilich composed her Quintet for Piano and Strings in 2011 for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, violist Michael Tree and bassist Harold Robinson on a joint commission from twelve foundations and chamber music presenters across the country. Zwilich's work shares its instrumentation and the theme of its second movement with Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, with which it is being paired on its initial performances. The opening movement is built around a Classical sonata form that, like Schubert, balances dramatic with lyrical elements. It begins with a slow introduction whose wide-ranging theme ascends from the cello into the upper strings. Aggressive descending arpeggios from the piano spark a sudden quickening of the tempo and complementary comments from the strings; the violin presents a smooth, arching melody as the second theme. A climax built around the wide-ranging theme of the introduction provides the bridge to the development section, which re-works both main and second subjects. The music quiets, the tempo slows, and the cello begins a further discussion of the introductory theme. Aggressive main theme and lyrical second theme are recapitulated before the movement comes to a lean, ambiguous close.

The second movement is a fantasy in blues style on Schubert's 1817 song Die Forelle ("The Trout") that takes its subtitle (Die launische Forelle) from the third line of Christian Schubart's poem: In a gleaming little brook/There darted in merry haste/A moody trout./It shot past like an arrow. The mood and materials of the movement are established at the outset: the low strings set up an even-gaited stride bass, the piano interjects a little swing figure, the violin sounds the opening phrase of Schubert's song, slowly and as if from a distance, and the viola tries out an improvisatory-sounding (but precisely notated) jazz phrase. These elements are shared by the ensemble and culminate in a flamboyant unison passage that provides movement's climax. The four ideas from the beginning return as a subdued coda.

The finale is based largely on the tightly coiled, syncopated phrase presented in the opening measures. Variety is by provided by the recall of the stride bass from the second movement and the arching second theme from the first movement as counterpoint. The return of the introduction's wide-ranging theme in its original slow tempo gives formal contrast at the movement's center. The syncopated phrase resumes and is driven forward with great energy to bring the Quintet to its dynamic close.