AFTER Ellen Taafe Zwilich won a Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony No. 1, it was as though a mountain had moved. She had already made a significant mark in American contemporary music, but the prize brought her to the immediate attention of the concert world. Commissions began to pour in, major orchestras took interest in her work, and she appeared on national television.
Now, two years later, the applause continues. She finds herself turning down commissions -- a luxury in the world of composing. Her symphony will be performed tomorrow night at the Women's Music Festival (Oct. 3-6 at Boston University).
But Ms. Zwilich's success presents a paradox.
On one hand, it should have been no surprise for a woman suddenly to crack the upper echelon of a male-dominated profession. During the past 10 years, women have entered the ranks of composers seemingly from nowhere. Opportunities for getting published, performed, and recorded have never been better. Two women composers now have residencies with major symphonies, and have a good chance of getting their music performed. And Broadcast Music Incorporated, the world's largest performance rights organization, says the number of royalty payments it has made to women composers of serious music has doubled since 1977.
On the other hand, Ellen Zwilich is a remarkable exception. The fact remains that, overall, a representative amount of women's music has never been heard.
``Women composers are still really a novelty,'' says Marjorie Merryman, a composer and assistant professor at Boston University. ``I know in my own case, whenever I meet new people and I say I'm a composer, I'm very likely to get the response, `Oh, a woman composer? I didn't know there were any!''
Ms. Merryman explains that throughout history women have been faced with the notion that they cannot and should not compose. Working outside the mainstream of music, they were unable to establish reputations and sell their music. As a result, many of their manuscripts were lost or thrown away.
But traditional attitudes are far less a problem today than the plight of modern music in general.
``Contemporary music in general has a lot of problems,'' Merryman says. ``Audiences don't always feel that interested in it. We sort of tend to band together and feel that that's our problem, rather than gender.''
``The contemporary composers of yesteryear addressed themselves to a wide audience,'' says George Sturm, executive director of Music Associates of America, music publicists. ``Now a work gets performed because it's written on commission or there's a feeling of cultural obligation and it gets performed once -- but never again.''
Mr. Sturm, Ellen Zwilich's agent, says virtually no composers today are able to make a living from composing alone. This makes it extra difficult for women. ``As woman have more and more opportunities . . . the medium of music is less in demand.''
Although women have had it tough in an already tough business, their mood is mostly optimistic, says Elizabeth Pizer, head of the International League of Women Composers.
``In centuries past, women composers were grossly neglected and left out of the reference volumes. But the feminist movement has been helpful, since it has affected every field,'' she says.
One advantage today's women composers have is the presence of role models: Miriam Gideon and Louise Talma, who gained prominence in the 1940s, for example. More recent champions include Joan Tower, Elizabeth Larsen, and Barbara Kolb. These women are bolstering a kindred spirit that past women composers never knew.
Women's music festivals like the one tonight at BU (the largest ever in New England) now occur regularly across the country, and they represent a vital opportunity, most of the composers feel, for people to hear music by women, exchange information, and share insights into the world of composing. ``There is a great deal of music that is well worth hearing . . . so you have to give it the best possible hearing,'' says Elizabeth Vercoe, composer and co-director of the festival. The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller, will perform a piano concerto by Clara Schumann, and the Boston Uni-versity Symphony Orchestra plans to tackle the difficult Zwilich symphony.
The primary goal of this festival is to bring women composers into the mainstream of concert life.
``What we hope is not to segregate the music, but to call people's attention to the fact that women are composing,'' says Dianne Rahbee, who heads the Massachusetts chapter of American Women Composers, cosponsor of the festival with BU. ``Eventually, we would include works by both women and men in our concerts.''
Veronica Jochum, who will play the Clara Schumann concerto, shares this goal of dwelling less on gender. ``Playing Clara's music is not an act of compassion -- that's not for me,'' she says. ``It's wonderful music in its own right.''
Ruth Loman, a lifelong composer -- and a grandmother -- works in her home in Cambridge, Mass., teaching piano, composition, and theory. As typical of many women composers, she had to reconcile a musical career with motherhood.
``I didn't have time to compose when my children were little,'' Ms. Loman says. After they grew up, she took up composing again, despite the challenges. ``You lose a lot of your contacts, and you don't feel quite as secure.''
Nonetheless, Loman has become a prominent composer and is national vice-president of American Women Composers. Several of her pieces will be performed this weekend, including one world premi`ere commissioned by that organization.
Yung Wha Son, a PhD candidate at the University of California at San Diego, will fly to Boston to hear the premi`ere of a piece she wrote for solo harp. Taking time out from completing a large orchestral work, she is excited about the chance to meet more established composers.
``I'm still in the process of discovering what I like and what I don't like. I would like . . . to get to know more about women composers, not only because they're women, but because it's an enlightening thing.''
The composer says she's had a rewarding career so far, receiving support from her teachers and academic community. ``But I'd like to be more aware of what is happening and participate in finding ways of eliminating problems women composers have.''
For Clara Lyle Boone, things were more difficult. When she began her career in 1948, she knew of no other women composers. Publishers did not take her seriously. She longed to establish her own publishing company that would give women a fair chance to sell their music.
``I set aside money, made investments, and got enough of a financial endowment so I wouldn't be driven out of business,'' she says.
After more than 25 years of saving, Ms. Boone founded Arsis Press, in Washington, D.C. It is the only publishing company solely for women composers.
Festivals like the one in Boston ``generate an enormous amount of excitement,'' says Loman. But she stresses a need for performances of major works by women. ``There are a lot of individuals who are devoted to playing music by women, but moving from that into the sphere of the symphony world is an enormous leap.''
``It's hard to feel that your music exists at all if it's never been heard,'' says Ms. Vercoe. ``If you know your work isn't going to be performed, it's difficult to keep writing. . . . What women can do is certainly reflected in the way a woman thinks. We have to have confidence in order to work.''