Antonia Brico (1902–89) was the first woman to gain wide acceptance and recognition in the field of symphony conducting. Despite being told that women could not and should not be symphony conductors, she completed the rigorous conducting course at the University of Berlin and conducted many major orchestras in the 1930s and 1940s, including the Berlin Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic. After living in California, New York, and Europe, she spent the last forty-seven years of her life in Denver, conducting when she could and teaching piano and vocal music at her prestigious Brico Studio. In 1974 her most famous student, folk singer Judy Collins, made a documentary film about her, which was nominated for an Academy Award and made Brico into a feminist icon.
Antonia Louisa Brico was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on June 26, 1902, to Agnes Brico. Her father was a traveling Italian musician. Unmarried and unable to care for the baby, her mother placed Antonia in a local convent. At age two, she was placed with a foster family named Wolthus in Amsterdam, with Agnes paying a weekly stipend for her expenses. When Antonia was six, the family secretly immigrated to the United States. They settled in Oakland, California, and Antonia was renamed Wilhelmina Wolthus. She did not know the story of her birth until she was a teenager. She would eventually take back her birth name when she was twenty-two.
Brico later characterized her childhood as “miserable,” full of verbal and physical abuse, but one bright spot was music. At age ten, she began to learn piano from a twelve-year-old neighbor. A child prodigy, she quickly mastered the basics. By high school, she was an accomplished pianist. Her choral teacher, Minnie Davis, became a strong influence and advocate. Davis took Brico to her first concert, where she was immediately enchanted by conducting and vowed to become a conductor herself. Paul Steindorf, a famous pianist and conductor, was conducting that day. He agreed to take Brico on as a piano student. Davis and Steindorf encouraged her to apply to college, against the wishes of her foster parents. When she enrolled at the University of California–Berkeley in 1919 to continue her piano studies with Steindorf, her foster parents severed their relationship with her.
Education: Berkeley and New York City
Brico thrived in college. She studied piano, picked up violin and cello, and learned several foreign languages. Independent of her abusive foster family, she supported herself with a variety of jobs, including teaching piano, waiting tables, and working at Woolworth’s. She became involved in the Theosophical Society, a spiritual program that integrated Eastern and Western philosophies. Theosophical teachings would be important to her throughout her life and helped her to heal from the trauma of her childhood.
Brico remained determined to become a symphony conductor. At the time, there were no professional female conductors in the United States, and all professional symphony musicians were men (except for the occasional harpist). Musically talented women, including Brico, were expected to become music teachers or accompanists. Even Steindorf scoffed at her ambition, saying, “it would never work because no one wants a woman conductor.” Nonetheless, she persisted and managed to get herself admitted as the only woman in a master class in conducting led by famous conductor and pianist Sigismund Stojowski.
After graduating from Berkeley in 1923, Brico went to New York City to study piano with Stojowski. Like Steindorf, however, he would not teach her to conduct and called her ambition “ridiculous.” Brico lived with the Stojowski family for two years, often practicing piano twelve hours a day. It was during this time that she located her birth family and took back her birth name.
In 1925 Brico returned to Berkeley as a graduate student. Modeste Alloo had replaced Steindorf as the conducting professor at Berkeley, but he too told her that women did not have the stamina to become conductors. To support herself, she performed regularly as a soloist and accompanist for local concerts and on radio broadcasts.
Europe: Birth Family and Conducting
While in New York, Brico had reestablished contact with her birth family in the Netherlands. Her mother had died in 1909, but her extended family was excited to reconnect with her. In 1926 she sailed for Holland, where she enjoyed her newfound family. Her family encouraged her artistic endeavors and her dream of conducting. She began to consider applying to the Master School of Conducting at the University of Berlin. After a brief return to the United States, she went to Berlin in 1927 to audition for the conducting school with Karl Muck, the famous head of the program. Armed with letters of recommendation from Steindorf, Stojowski, and Alloo, who seem to have been worn down by her persistence and talent, Brico became the first woman and the first American admitted to the most demanding and prestigious conducting program in Europe. She studied all aspects of conducting in the intensive, two-year program, graduating at the end of 1929.
On January 10, 1930, Brico made her European conducting debut as the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. The New York Times reported: “Miss Antonia Brico of San Francisco, made a successful debut tonight in Berlin with the Philharmonic Orchestra, which followed her baton most enthusiastically, eliciting thunderous applause.”
In July 1930, Brico had her American conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic before a sold-out audience at the Hollywood Bowl. The San Francisco Examiner described her as a “phenomenon because of her mastery of the orchestra and as a symbol because she illustrated the emancipation of women from the man-imposed fetters of the ages.” Nevertheless, few opportunities for conducting materialized in the United States. She returned to Europe, where she guest-conducted orchestras in Hamburg, Brussels, Vienna, Riva, and Dusseldorf before rising political tensions in Europe led her to return to the United States in 1932.
New York: Triumphs and Challenges
Arriving back in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, Brico found no conducting jobs open to her. She formed the Musicians Symphony Orchestra, made up of out-of-work musicians, and conducted several performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. She was also hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to conduct public concerts performed by out-of-work musicians in different communities.
In 1934 Brico formed the Women’s Orchestra of New York, a full-sized professional orchestra composed entirely of women, with herself as conductor. Sponsors included Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and members of the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families. The symphony performed at Carnegie Hall and became a critical and financial success, soon growing to become one of the largest orchestras in the city. Now becoming better known, Brico was invited in July 1938 to become the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. She led a program that included a symphony by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who had become one of her mentors. Her conducting skills were again praised in the New York Times.
Brico was committed to fighting for equity in the hiring of female musicians. She was instrumental in the formation of the Musician’s Union’s Committee for the Recognition of Women in the Musical Profession in 1938. At the time, professional symphonies would not hire women or even allow them to audition. A year later, she disbanded the Women’s Orchestra to form a “mixed” symphony orchestra, made up of men and women, called the Brico Symphony Orchestra. The group experienced some success and performed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but it disbanded in 1940 owing to a lack of funding.
Denver: Studio and Symphony
In 1940, while conducting WPA concerts across the United States, Brico made a stop in Denver. In December, with support from friends in the Denver music community, she appeared as the guest conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In 1942 she moved to Denver, where she may have thought she would be offered the Denver Symphony conducting job after Horace Tureman’s retirement. She bought a house at 959 Pennsylvania Street, where she offered private conducting, piano, and voice lessons to local students. She also conducted the Trinity Methodist Church choir and taught courses at Colorado College. She long hoped to be hired to conduct a professional symphony in Denver, but that opportunity never materialized. She was consistently passed over in favor of male conductors. The Denver Businessmen’s Orchestra, an amateur symphony, named her its conductor in 1947. She led the orchestra for thirty-nine years; in 1967 it was renamed the Brico Symphony.
Still not offered professional conducting jobs in the United States, Brico continued to travel to Europe to conduct throughout the 1940s and 1950s. She was invited to conduct in cities all over the continent, including Paris, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, London, and Oberammergau. She conducted the Helsinki Symphony at Sibelius’s invitation and was later honored with the Pro-Finlandia Medal for her support and contributions to the people and culture of Finland.
Later Years and Legacy
In her later years, Brico became something of a living legend. In 1968 the University of California–Berkeley named her one of the school’s 100 most distinguished graduates in its 100-year history. In 1974 her most famous student, folk singer Judy Collins, made her the subject of a documentary called Antonia: Portrait of a Woman. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the film captured Brico’s struggle with discrimination and prejudice. It also revitalized her career. She was invited to conduct major symphonies all over the United States and abroad, and she became a feminist phenomenon, telling her story on 60 Minutes and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1986 she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
Brico continued to conduct and teach until around 1985. She died on August 3, 1989, at the age of eighty-seven. Remembered for her pioneering spirit, talent, determination, and early feminism, she blazed a path for women in the field of symphony conducting.