History of the Chicago Symphony Chorus

The Chicago Symphony Chorus celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2017–18. Led by chorus director and conductor Duain Wolfe since 1994, the ensemble performs regularly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival.

The history of the Chorus began in 1957, when sixth music director Fritz Reiner invited Margaret Hillis to establish a chorus to equal the quality of the Orchestra. Hillis accepted the challenge and the Chicago Symphony Chorus debuted in March and April 1958, in Mozart’s Requiem under Bruno Walter and Verdi’s Requiem under Reiner.

Hillis served the Chorus for thirty-seven years, until her retirement in 1994; ninth music director Daniel Barenboim appointed Wolfe as her successor in June of that year.

The Chorus frequently performs under music director Riccardo Muti as well as guest conductors. 2018-19 highlights include Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 13 (Babi Yar) and Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 in addition to Verdi’s and Mozart’s requiems, Handel’s Messiah, and Verdi’s Aida in concert at season’s end.

The Chorus first performed in Carnegie Hall in 1967 in Henze’s Muses of Sicily and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe under seventh music director Jean Martinon, and most recently in 2015 with Riccardo Muti for Scriabin’s Prometheus and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Touring internationally with the Orchestra, the Chorus traveled to London and Salzburg in 1989 with Sir Georg Solti for performances of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and to Berlin in 1999 with Barenboim for Brahms’s A German Requiem and Pierre Boulez for Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

World premieres featuring the Chorus have included Ned Rorem’s Goodbye My Fancy, John Harbison’s Four Psalms, and Bernard Rands’s apókryphos. The Chorus has collaborated with visiting orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta, and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim.

Since first recording commercially in 1959—Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky under Reiner—the Chorus has amassed a discography that includes hallmarks of the choral repertoire and several complete operas. The Chorus most recently received a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance for Verdi’s Requiem, led by Riccardo Muti on CSO Resound. The Chorus has received an additional nine Grammy awards for Best Choral Performance for Verdi’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Brahms’s A German Requiem, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Haydn’s The Creation, and Bach’s Mass in B minor with Solti; Brahms’s Requiem and Orff’s Carmina Burana with James Levine; and Bartók’s Cantata profana with Boulez.

The Chorus has appeared on two movie soundtracks with the Orchestra: Fantasia 2000 led by Levine and John Williams’s score for Lincoln, conducted by the composer. Recordings on CSO Resound featuring the Chorus include Mahler’s Second and Third symphonies, Poulenc’s Gloria, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe under Bernard Haitink; and Berlioz’s Lélio, Verdi’s Otello, and most recently Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre under Riccardo Muti.