The first female to conduct a philharmonic orchestra was Dutch-born American conductor and pianist, Antonia Brico. By the time she was 17, Antonia was an accomplished pianist and had already begun her career towards being the first woman conductor.
Troubled Early Life
Antonia’s personal life was just as dramatic as her conducting. She was raised by foster parents in the Dutch Catholic faith, having been an illegitimate daughter of a Dutch teenager and Italian nightclub pianist. Antonia suffered abuse from her foster parents, who insisted on calling her Wilhelmina Wolthius, although they never formerly adopted her.
Through the foster mother’s frequent beatings and scoldings, Wilhelmina became an anxious child and began biting her fingernails. Antonia would say later, “I’d dream about having an automobile accident in front of someone’s house, just so they’d pick me up and be affectionate.”
Solace in Music
When her biological mother tried to get her child back, the foster parents took 6-year-old Antonia and fled to the United States.
A doctor suggested that learning to play the piano might overcome the nail biting habit. The 10-year-old found solace sitting at the piano, “Music doesn’t hurt little girls”.
Antonia loved the piano and dreamt of becoming a concert pianist. After attending a concert conducted by Paul Steindorff, Antonia felt limiting herself to one instrument was not enough. She set her sights on becoming a conductor. “To me the orchestra is the greatest instrument. It is to the musician what the palette is to a painter.”
Passion to Conduct
Antonia was of short, yet imposing stature and the first time she conducted was in junior high. She wore a huge black flowing gown and strode onto the stage clutching a baton. “She had this stern look on her face that could have melted parts of Greenland”
When Antonia was 17 years old, the Wolthius revealed they were not Wilhelmina’s true parents. She moved out and had no further contact with them.
In 1923, age 21, Antonia graduated with a B.A. from the University of California. People advised her to become a music teacher, as “Conducting was no job for a woman.” Antonia officially reclaimed her birth name, Antonia Brico. In 1926, she moved to Hamburg, Germany.
In 1927, Antonia was not only the first woman, but the first American to graduate from the Berlin State Academy of Music master class in conducting. For three years she was a pupil of Karl Muck conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic.
Life in Disarray
Antonia returned to Holland for a reunion with her birth family. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an uncle, seven years her senior. The affair was such a scandal the uncle broke off the relationship and returned to his suicidal wife.
Antonia made her debut as a professional conductor in 1930, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Critic for the Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “Miss Brico displayed unmistakable and outstanding gifts as a conductor. She possesses more ability, cleverness and musicianship than certain of her male colleagues who bore us in Berlin.”
This was followed by the Los Angeles Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Hamburg Philharmonic. In 1933, she made her debut in New York as a guest conductor of the Musician’s Symphony Orchestra. Antonia was hired to conduct a second concert, but was denied a third when the tenor soloist, John Charles Thomas, refused to perform with a female conductor. He feared she would take the attention away from him.
The Antonia Brico Orchestra
In 1934, the Antonia Brico Orchestra was created when she became the conductor of the new Women’s Symphony Orchestra. Antonia was determined to prove that women could play any part of the symphony. “They can play equally well the trombone, the flute, the oboe or the French horn.” Brico had the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and the NYC Mayor, Fiorella LaGuardia. Sadly, the orchestra was forced to disband for lack of finance.
Despite her impressive resume, Antonia had a career-long struggle with gender bias, that kept her from conducting more frequently or a permanent position. “You’re either born a musician or you’re born not a musician. It has nothing to do with gender.”
Up to that point, it was a novelty to see accept that a woman could competently conduct a creditable orchestra. Her success had a strange effect, as the novelty wore off it became difficult for Antonia to gain serious attention, in a traditionally male world. Antonia had to take up teaching to support herself.
Opening in New York
In 1938, Antonia was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Mrs. Charles Guggenheimer, a wealthy socialite is reported as having said, “It’s a disgrace that a woman is conducting this venerable orchestra.”
Arthur Judson, who managed the NY Philharmonic Orchestra told Antonia, “All those females in the audience want to see a male conducting. You were born 50 years too soon.”
Antonia’s interpretation of Sibelius was reported as, “It brought one of the most spontaneous and sustained outbursts of approval of the Stadium season.” Yet, a permanent conducting job in the United States continued to elude Antonia.
False Hopes for Antonia Brico
Believing she had the necessary contacts to win a permanent conducting post with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, Antonia moved her music studio to Denver. However, in 1945, the board awarded the conducting post to Saul Caston, who had been the associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was reported, “Brico was far better qualified than Caston, but personality was a factor. Brico was extremely intelligent and had a wonderful sense of humour, but she could be abrasive and even dictatorial at times.”
Antonia firmly believed that the bias against a female conductor came from management, not the musicians. “If the leader knows her business, the orchestra doesn’t care whether it is a man or a woman.”
Her First Love
Antonia never gave up her first love, the piano. In 1946 she did an extensive European tour, both as a pianist and a conductor. She led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a Royal Albert Hall concert. Composer Jan Sebelius said she was “A conductor of flame and fire.”
Undaunted, Antonia formed a Bach Society and Women’s String Ensemble. The only permanent conducting position Antonia ever held was the Denver Businessmen’s Orchestra. Henry Heskett, who played horn in Brico’s orchestra for twenty years, said she was a disturbing mix of genius and childlike behaviour. “A child in every respect except music. She knew how to manoeuvre people. You knew you were being manoeuvered, but you did it anyway.”
In 1967, the musicians renamed the orchestra as the Brico Symphony Orchestra, which she continued to conduct. “I have five performances a year, but I’m strong enough to have five a month. It’s like giving a starving person a piece of bread.”
In 1976, Antonia said, “The only sexists in the concert world today are women in the audience and most of the critics – they want only men on the podium.” She believed more women would land orchestral jobs if auditions were held behind a screen to conceal their gender, an idea that did not take root until the 1970s.
More than that, women conductors had to make different gestures from a man conductor. Acting in the same way as a male, made a woman seem possessed, whereas in a man it was seen as strength. Even in the early 2000s, there were still no women music directors of any major orchestra in the world. As of October 2021, there were no female conductors in the largest, 25 American ensembles.
Marin Alsop, influenced by Antonia Brico, was a music director for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007 until August 2021. She said she expected more women to be appointed in other orchestras. It never happened and she experienced strong resistance when she tried to introduce women guest conductors.
Antonia Brico continued to teach, following her retirement from conducting in 1981, at age 79.
Film Documentary on Antonia Brico
In 1974, a film documentary, ‘Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,’ was released. It was an “Extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman. She was a pioneer female orchestra conductor, an artist and a feminist.” The film is a vision of optimism and courage that defines a life of a brilliant but thwarted promise. It details the disturbing details of brilliance misused. Brilliance that was only observed as a novelty, despite Antonia’s commitment and courage and delightful sense of humour. Antonia Brico knew the immense value of laughter.
Elizabeth Jans, Brico’s housekeeper/secretary and closest companion in Antonia’s final years said, “She was very tenacious. If she wanted something, she went after it, even if she had to go to Finland or Africa. If you told her she couldn’t do something, she would be even more determined.”
Death of Antonia Brico
Antonia died in 1989, aged 87, following a fall, in which she broke her hip, and a long illness followed. In 1986, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, which would be little consolation for a woman who had received such rave reviews for her performance as a conductor.
The life of Antonia Brico was the life of a woman of indomitable will and unshakeable determination. Her voice continues to be heard, as the best known and most acclaimed female conductor of the early 20th century. Through hard work, extraordinary talent, determination and passion for music, Antonia Brico made the way for future female conductors.
Moving Forward 2022
In November 2022, the Brisbane Philharmonic and Brisbane Chorale and Oriana Choir were conducted very sensitively and professionally by Emily Cox. It was a delight to watch the sensitivity and passion that Emily used in conducting Franz Joseph Haydn’s, The Creation. Well done, Ms Cox, in what is still traditionally a man’s world. It is noted that Emily did not make use of the traditional baton, instead she used her bare hands for a spellbinding performance.
If you get the opportunity to attend one of Emily’s performances, don’t turn it down. It will be a long-remembered, and treasured experience.
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Wendy is an inspirational writer, for which she has a strong passion. She is also very passionate about her garden and family. She says life is too short to waste, so live it to the fullest.