Berlin Philharmonic's first woman conductor

In 2005 the appointment of a woman music director by a major American orchestra caused a storm of controversy. So, it is surprising to find that it was back in 1930 that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was first conducted by a woman, and even more surprising to find she was an American. But the story doesn't have a happy ending. Despite receiving critical acclaim, Antonia Brico found doors closed to her when she returned to the US, and was forced to form her own orchestras to continue her conducting career. She is seen above conducting in New York in 1945. (Image credit Dr. Ralph Weizsäcker).

Antonia Brico was born Wilhelmina Wolthus in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1902, and emigrated to California with her foster parents in 1908. She attended high school in Oakland where she gained experience as a pianist and conductor. She went on to study liberal arts at the University of California, Berkeley, and also worked at the San Francisco Opera as an assistant to the director, Paul Steindorff. After graduating she studied piano under a variety of teachers, most notably under Sigismund Stojowski.

In 1927 she travelled to Europe to study at the Berlin State Academy of Music and was the first American to graduate from its master class in conducting. She then studied for three years with Karl Muck, who was conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. While studying with Muck she had the distinction of working as a coach at Bayreuth. In 1930 Antonia Brico became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. This was not a token appearance. After her debut the critic of the influential Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that she "possesses more ability, cleverness and musicianship than certain of her male colleagues who bore us in Berlin."

But this positive press did not help her when she returned to the US after her Berlin debut. She was well received when she conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but was not appointed to a vacant post there. Following a tour of Poland and the Balkans, she returned to the US where she appeared as guest conductor of the Musicians' Symphony Orchestra in many major citiies. However, she failed to win an appointment with any of the established orchestras.

Rather than accept defeat Antonia Brico formed her own Women's Symphony Orchestra in 1934, with backing from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In a wonderful example of reverse equality the orchestra changed its name to the Brico Symphony Orchestra in 1939 when it opened its ranks to male musicians. This review in Time of their concert in Manhattan Town Hall in March 1935 illustrates the prejudices that the Women's Symphony Orchestra faced:

Miss Beatrice Oliver played the oboe as if she had never heard of the doctors' treatises which warn all oboe-players against congestion in the head. She sounded A. The other players took the pitch. Conductor Brico appeared in a severe black jacket, bobbed her bushy head and the concert was off. The strings played soundly and vigorously through Beethoven's Egmont Overture, his Second Symphony, a Chopin concerto in which Pianist Sigismund Stojowski. once Brico's teacher, soloed academically. Brico conducted with force but not affectation. The strings were rarely delicate but they caught her determination. The trumpets were strident, too, but knew their notes. Only the French horns soured continuously. The women who played them seemed completely baffled.

The photo above was taken and shows Antonia Brico in 1938 with Mayor La Guardia of New York and Mayor Angelo Rossi of San Francisco. (Image credit NARA/SPB). In 1938 she had became the first woman to conduct an opera performance by a major New York company when she took the baton for the New York Hippodrome Opera production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel". And in 1938 she added another male scalp to her collection when she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. But she was sanguine about these achievements, saying in an interview "I do not call myself a woman conductor, I call myself a conductor who happens to be a woman"; words which were later echoed by a great woman composer.

Antonia Brico went on to conduct the Federal Orchestra at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Her programmes included contemporary American music, and among the premieres she presented was Elinor Remick Warren's The Harp Weaver at Carnegie Hall in 1936. She also taught, and her pupils included the child prodigy pianist and composer Philippa Schuyler for a short time in 1939. Brico resigned as Schuyler's teacher before the child's notoriously ruthless mother could fire her. Perceptively, in view of later events, the teacher wrote the following about her pupil: "Too many highly gifted childrem disaappear into oblivion because they play too many concerts during the formative years".

European tours continued for Antonia Brico, both as a pianist and a conductor, and she was invited by none other than Jean Sibelius to conduct the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra. The photo below shows her conducting the San Francisco Bay Region Symphony Orchestra in 1938. (Image credit NARA/SPB)

In 1942 Antonia Brico moved to Denver, Colorado. Again she founded her own ensembles, a Bach Society and the Women's String Ensemble. She also conducted the Denver Businessmen's Orchestra. In 1948 this unfortunately titled ensemble was renamed the Brico Symphony Orchestra. In the same year she was appointed conductor of the Denver Community Symphony (later the Denver Symphony Orchestra), and continued to guest conduct orchestras around the world, including the Japan Women's Symphony.

She also became a respected teacher in Denver. Her students there included the folksinger Judy Collins. In 1974 Judy Collins made a documentary film with Jill Godmilow about the life of her teacher titled "Antonia: A Portrait of a Woman". This film created considerable interest. In 1975 Brico was scheduled to conduct a single concert at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. But this sold out so quickly that a second concert was hastily arranged, and CBS recorded the concerts for release on LP. She made her last New York appearance in 1977 conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonia. Antonia Brico died in 1989 in Denver, Colorado.

* Antonia Brico's Mozart LP is still available on a Sony CD.
* Another classical connection with Judy Collins is Joshua Rifkin. He wrote orchestral arrangements for three of her Collins' albums, In My Life, Wildflower and Whales and Nightingales. It was Rifkin's 1972 recording of the B minor Mass that pioneered the 'one voice per part' approach to Bach. In My Life includes a setting of Francesco Landini's Ecco la Primavera that uses sackbuts, viols, and a harmonium. Her 1967 version of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now on Wildflower was a major chart hit for Judy Collins. On it Joshua Rifkind conducts his own arrangement and plays harpshichord.

Now read about the Berlin Philharmonic's first black conductor.
- Trust Your Heart by Judy Collins, Houghton Mifflin ISBN 0395412854
- New York Times, August 5 1989
- Sony/BMG
- Time, March 5 1935
- Time, Feb 4 1935
- Music Web International, Elinor Remick Warren
- Composition In Black and White by Kathryn Talalay, Oxford University Press ISBN 0195113934
- New Deal Network
- DBH cultural event newsletter, June 26 2007
- Wikipedia entry
Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Elaine Fine said…
Thanks for this post, and thanks for the link to your earlier post about Musgrave and her statement about being a composer and a woman, but not at the same time. I imagine that she said that with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting post, thank you!

Though I must take issue with the Orwellian-sounding phrase "reverse equality"!
Pliable said…
Correction: Antonia Brico was not the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic -
Unknown said…
Thanks for this great post

Recent popular posts

Can streamed music ever be beautiful?

All aboard the Martinu bandwagon

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Programme note for orchestra touring China

Great music has no independent existence

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Who are the real classical role models?

He was not an online kind of person

Mahler that dares to be different