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Classical music has a history of Composing… Women! So this Women’s History Month Tri States Public Radio and the WIU School of Music shines the spotlight… one every weekday… on over twenty great female composers. From baroque to romantic… to impressionist… to post-serialist. From the mystic Abbess who advised the Pope… to the Chicagoan whose works were rediscovered in an abandoned house. Listen in for Composing Women… Every weekday during March at 7:19 during Morning Edition, or at 5:48 during All Things Considered, as TSPR Music Director Ken Zahnle introduces you to our composer of the day… and at 11:00 a.m. during Ovation for a featured work by our featured classical master.

Helen Taaffe Zwilich

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Bill Keefrey courtesy

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s career has been marked by several firsts: she was the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in composition from Julliard; she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music; and the first female composer to be mentioned in Charles Schulz’s iconic comic strip Peanuts.

Zwilich began her musical career on violin. After completing undergraduate studies at Florida State she moved to New York City, joining Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra. She began doctoral studies at Julliard, and in 1975 (the year she finished) her Symposium for Orchestra was premiered at Julliard, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

In 1983 her Symphony Number One (Three Movements for Orchestra) won the Pulitzer Prize for music. This was the first of many awards for Zwilich, who has composed 5 symphonies, multiple concertos, and chamber works, most in response to commission requests.

In 1990 cartoonist Charles Schulz saw a television interview with Zwilich, and decided to include her in a Peanuts comic strip: characters Peppermint Patty and Marcie attend a concert and Marcie says it includes a Flute Concerto by Zwilich, a composer “who happens to be a woman.” Patti stands on her seat and shouts, “GOOD GOING, ELLEN!” In reciprocity, for a Carnegie Hall commission for children’s music, Zwilich composed a piano concerto… the Peanuts Gallery. The six movements each feature a different Peanuts character.

Says Zwilich, “I’ve learned to think of my work as an exploration, or a voyage of discovery. It’s almost exciting realizing that this is something you can’t really learn to do.”

Helen Taaffe Zwilich… a Composing Woman.


Bassoon Concerto
Partita for Violin and String Orchestra
Rituals for five percussionists and orchestra
Symphony no. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra)
Fantasy for harpsichord
Symphony no. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra)

Supporting Materials

Accessible websites relevant to the composer

Ken oversees all music programming for Tri States Public Radio, hosting the morning classical music program Ovation, the Saturday nigh jazz survey After Hours, and engineering recorded performances for TSPR. Ken is a native of Highland Park, IL, with degrees in music and broadcasting from Western Illinois University. Teenage years listening to Chicago's old-school fine arts and classical radio stations, coupled with a few months spinning discs on a college residence hall radio station, led him onto the primrose career path of radio. Ken has deep roots at TSPR, starting as a student staff announcer and host, before becoming news director for a group of local radio stations, then Program Director for Tri States Audio Information Services. When he's not deep within our studios and music library, he continues his over quarter-century of assisting Macomb High School's Marching Band.