Hillis @ 100: Founding the Chicago Symphony Chorus

Margaret Hillis (chorus director), Fritz Reiner (music director), and Walter Hendl (associate conductor) onstage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in March 1959

Oscar Chicago

On September 22, 1957, the Orchestral Association announced Margaret Hillis would be organizing and training a chorus to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to her appointment, in New York Hillis had established a respectable conducting career. Particularly as a female conductor, rarely seen in those days, she was making a favorable impression with audiences and critics with her careful concert programming, precise conducting and the beautiful singing of her ensemble, all of which contributed to her growing reputation as a fine musician and conductor.

During his first season as the Chicago Symphony's sixth music director, Fritz Reiner had become dissatisfied with local choruses who were being engaged to collaborate with the Orchestra. So, in February 1954, he traveled to New York, seeking a professional chorus that could perform the difficult symphonic repertoire he hoped to program. Reiner knew of Hillis’s reputation as a fine choral conductor, and, after attending one of her rehearsals, hired her New York Concert Choir to appear the following season with the CSO. Hillis’s Concert Choir performed Samuel Barber’s recently composed Prayers of Kierkegaard and Orff’s Carmina Burana in March 1955, and they would return in January 1956 to perform Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Bruckner’s Te Deum.

When the Orchestra’s manager George Kuyper invited Hillis’s chorus to return for performances of Verdi’s Requiem in 1958, Hillis turned it down, insisting she would need an ensemble twice the size of that which she had brought to Chicago in past seasons. Explaining that a larger chorus would be prohibitively expensive, Hillis suggested “If you were thinking of [spending that much money to bring a chorus from New York], then start your own chorus.” Reiner called Hillis the next day, excited at the prospect of starting a chorus in Chicago. When Hillis offered to help the CSO organize the process, Reiner replied (in his thick Hungarian accent), “No, ve don’t have it unless you conduct.”

Hillis recalled being stunned by his statement. It had never dawned on her that Reiner would make such an offer. She hastily replied that she would call him back the next morning with her answer. Searching her datebook for bookings already lined up for the next year and a half, Hillis was surprised to discover that she had nearly every Monday night free as well as the performance dates for Verdi’s Requiem. She checked airline schedules and discovered that she could fly out to Chicago on Sunday nights and return on midnight flights back to New York after the Monday rehearsals. Calling Reiner the next day, Hillis agreed to accept the position.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus would make its informal debut on November 30, 1957, at a private concert for guarantors and sustaining members. Hillis took the podium during the second half of that concert to lead her new chorus, also becoming the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The CSC made its official debut with the Orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem on March 13 and 14, 1958, with Bruno Walter conducting and performed Verdi's Requiem under Reiner the following month.

Hillis would serve as director of the Chorus for almost four decades, preparing the ensemble for countless performances in Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; London; and Salzburg under the batons of four music directors, numerous guest conductors and her own.

In October 1997 — a few short months before she died — Hillis sent a letter to the Chicago Symphony Chorus as they celebrated their fortieth season.

Dear People,

Happy anniversary to us! I remember so clearly that first rehearsal forty years ago. . . . When I first came here in the fall of 1957 to start a chorus for Reiner, I thought I’d be here for three or four years, get the chorus established and then turn it over to someone else. Each year was to be my last for the first six seasons. I realized that the challenge I had set for myself and you was to have a chorus that sang as well as the Chicago Symphony played, and I stayed 37 years sustaining that ideal.

I think we accomplished it as much because of you, as it was of me. Your loyalty and steadfastness made it possible. May you continue this tradition of greatness in sound, phrasing, musicality and just plain fun in making great music.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus has indeed fulfilled Margaret Hillis’s wish, making an indelible mark upon the choral world with a tradition of excellence that continues today.

This article also appears here.

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