10 women conductor who made history

Last updated Apr 8, 2022 | Published on May 7, 2020

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.

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Chiquinha Gonzaga

Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga, better known as Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935, Rio de Janeiro) was a Brazilian composer, pianist, and the first woman conductor in Brazil.

Chiquinha dedicated her entire life to music: when her husband forced her to choose between music and family, she chose music, leaving her husband and being left with having to support herself and her son. 

After traveling extensively through Europe, in 1885 Gonzaga became the first known female in the world to lead an orchestra: the trouble was that there were no words to describe a female conductor, and the Portuguese press ended up using the title of “Maestrina”. It’s a mix of Maestro and the feminine diminutive suffix. It actually sounds quite sexist, as the term implies somehow a less accomplished professional.

Chiquinha was also the founder of the Brazilian Society of Theater Authors. At the end of her life, she composed music for 77 theater plays and was the author of about two thousand compositions in different genres: waltzes, polkas, tangos, lundus (a type of Afro-Brazilian dance), maxixes, Fado, quadrilles, mazurkas, Choros, and serenades.

She wrote her last composition, the opera “Maria”, in 1934, at the age of 87.

Elfrida Andree

Elfrida Andree (1841–1929) was the first female taking up the baton at the Workers Institute Concerts in Gotheberg in 1897. 

An activist in the Swedish women’s movement, she was one of the first female organists to be officially appointed in Scandinavia: in 1861 she rallied to legally gain the right to apply for a job as an organist. By the way, she was also the first woman to become a telegraph operator in Sweden, opening up possibilities for women to access jobs exclusively held by men until then.

Also active as a composer, her first symphony was performed in Stockholm in 1869, and two years later she conducted an orchestra in Gothenburg herself.

Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) is one of the most famous pedagogues in the history of music: she studied with Gabriel Fauré and André Gedalge and among her students, we can find Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, and Astor Piazzolla (there’s a full list here).

Her memory was prodigious: by the time she was twelve, she knew the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by heart. Copland himself recalls:


Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach, and post-Stravinsky. All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition, the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue, the Greek modes, and Gregorian chant.”

Murray Perahia recalled being “awed by the rhythm and character” with which she played a line of a Bach fugue.

Nadia Boulanger made her debut as a conductor in 1912, leading the Société des Matinées Musicales orchestra. They performed her 1908 cantata La Sirène, two of her songs, and Pugno’s Concertstück for piano and orchestra. In 1936, Boulanger substituted for Alfred Cortot in some of his piano masterclasses, and later in the year, she traveled to London to broadcast her lecture-recitals for the BBC, as well as to conduct works including Schütz, Fauré and Lennox Berkeley. She was the first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and, in 1937, to conduct a complete concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London. 

A rare video of Madame Boulanger teaching a young Emile Naoumoff.

Jean Françaix: Piano Concerto in D major

Jean Françaix, piano
L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris
Nadia Boulanger, conductor


Recorded on February 9, 1937, in the Studio Albert, Paris

Antonia Louisa Brico

Antonia Brico (1902-1989) was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands but her family migrated to the US in 1908, settling in California. After graduating, Brico worked as an assistant to the director of the San Francisco Opera and in 1927, she entered the Berlin State Academy of Music, graduating in 1929 from its master class in conducting. 

Following her debut as a professional conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in February 1930, Brico worked with the San Francisco Symphony and the Hamburg Philharmonic.

In 1934, she was appointed conductor of the newly founded Women’s Symphony Orchestra which, in January 1939 (following the admission of men), became the Brico Symphony Orchestra. In 1938, Brico was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998), the daughter of composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, made her debut as a conductor at the Royal Albert Hall in 1933. She was the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines and a frequent guest conductor of the BBC Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. She was the founder and conductor of both the Coleridge-Taylor Symphony Orchestra and its accompanying musical society in the 1940s, as well as the Malcolm Sargent Symphony Orchestra. 

Vítězslava Kaprálová

Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) was a daughter of composer Vaclav Kapral and voice teacher Vitezslava Uhlirova. Among her teachers, we find Vitezslav Novak and Vaclav Talich in Prague and Charles Munch at the Ecole normale de musique in Paris (1937-1938); she also studied composition with Bohuslav Martinu, and, according to some unverified accounts, with Nadia Boulanger in 1940.

Kapralova debuted with the Czech Philharmonic in 1937 and a year later the BBC Orchestra conducting her Military Sinfonietta. She died prematurely in 1940. 

Veronika Dudarova

Veronika Dudarova (1916-2009) studied piano at the Leningrad Conservatory (1933–1937), and conducting at the Moscow Conservatory (1939–1947).

Dudarova was a junior conductor at the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and, in 1960, she took over as the principal conductor and led the orchestra until 1989. She led the Symphony Orchestra of Russia from 1991 to 2003 and retained the role of artistic manager of the orchestra until her death in Moscow in January 2009.

The main-belt asteroid 9737 Dudarova was named after her.

Margaret Hillis

Margaret Hillis (1921-1998) studied conducting with Julius Herford and with Robert Shaw at the Juilliard School, becoming then an assistant conductor of Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale. In 1957, Fritz Reiner invited her to organize and train a symphony chorus for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

Hillis went on to be the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; she caught nationwide attention in 1977 when she substituted on short notice Sir Georg Solti, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Sarah Caldwell

A child prodigy, Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) is known for having started and led the Boston Opera Group – which later became the Opera Company of Boston – where she conducted a myriad of performances with some of the greatest opera stars of her time, from Tito Gobbi to Beverly Sills to Joan Sutherland.

In 1974 she became the second woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic  and in 1976 the first female conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, with La traviata (again with Sills). Caldwell appeared with the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Xiaoying Zheng

Xiaoying Zheng (b.1929) is the first woman conductor in China.  Zheng took part in the Chinese Communist Revolution, where she trained a large song and dance troupe and conducted Chinese operas. In 1955, she was sent to a special course taught by Soviet conductors where she was the only woman in the class and between 1960 and 1963 she studied opera conducting at the Moscow Conservatory. After Moscow, she returned to CCOM and taught until the Cultural Revolution interrupted her work. During the revolution, there “was no classical music in China”.

Zheng became the Principal Conductor at the CNOH in Beijing in 1977 and founded the first women’ symphony orchestra in China, the Ai Yue Nu Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1993. In 1998, she started the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra (XPO).


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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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