On October 1, 2021, we celebrate the centennial of Margaret Hillis, the founder and first director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. She led the ensemble for 37 years — from 1957 until 1994 — influencing the development of symphonic choruses to a level of precision, polish and refinement akin to the orchestras with which they perform. Hillis’s achievements with the Chicago Symphony Chorus have served as a model which others continue to emulate.
Hillis was born to a prestigious family in Kokomo, Indiana. Her grandfather, Elwood Haynes, invented stainless steel and one of the first automobiles, and her father, Glenn Hillis, was a successful lawyer who narrowly lost the 1940 race for the governorship of Indiana. She was raised to believe she could do whatever she set out to accomplish, and her dream, from the time she was child, was to become an orchestral conductor. However, society had other plans for her. Hillis’s aspiration was not an option for women of her generation. Unable to pursue a direct route for her desired career, she would find her way to the podium through the “back door,” opting to pursue choral conducting instead.
During her youth, Hillis taught herself to play many instruments, settling upon double bass as she entered her formal musical studies at Indiana University. She briefly left college in December 1942 to become a civilian flight instructor with the US Navy, teaching young pilots to fly during World War II. After the war, Hillis completed her degree, and in 1947, she headed to the Juilliard School to study with Robert Shaw, a leader in the field of choral conducting. She was advised that this could be her only way to a conducting career. As one who had been steeped in orchestral music throughout her life, Hillis bravely pursued choral conducting, requiring her to learn an entirely new set of skills. She would quickly adapt, and after only a few short years, she formed her own ensemble in New York — the American Concert Choir — and quickly gained the respect of audiences and critics alike.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's sixth music director, Fritz Reiner, would soon discover Hillis’s outstanding work, and he invited her to start a chorus in Chicago. On March 13, 1958, the newly formed Chicago Symphony Chorus made its debut in Mozart’s Requiem with Bruno Walter conducting. During Hillis’s time as director of the Chorus, the ensemble regularly appeared with the CSO in Chicago and on tour, performing in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and in their 1989 European debut at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy events during Hillis’s directorship occurred on October 31, 1977, when she replaced Sir Georg Solti on short notice at Carnegie Hall for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, garnering international attention.
In addition to Hillis’s success with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, she was recognized in her role of “breaking the glass ceiling” for women pursuing orchestral conducting careers. She was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the first to regularly conduct a major symphony orchestra, and she contributed generously to the choral profession, establishing the American Choral Foundation, presiding as a founding member of the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles (now Chorus America), and serving on the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. She also established the Do-It-Yourself-Messiah tradition and was instrumental in the founding of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts series, both of which continue to thrive.
Throughout her career, Hillis tirelessly campaigned for the sustenance of professional singers, and she was equally passionate about teaching, serving on faculties of Northwestern and Indiana universities and leading countless conducting workshops. She received many honorary doctoral degrees and numerous recognitions — including nine Grammy awards — however, her greatest achievement was the rich legacy she established as she transformed the choral landscape.
Though Margaret Hillis would earn the respect of the world’s major conductors along with the admiration and affection of many musicians, colleagues, and music lovers, her journey was not an easy one. She deftly circumvented the constant barriers in fields where women were not welcome. Despite the obstacles, Hillis’s legacy lives on, in the continued success of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, in more frequent appearances of women conducting orchestras and in professional choruses that flourish throughout the world.
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