Influential Women Composers: The Legacy of Antonia Brico and Nadia Boulanger

Rachel Luthardt

Throughout history, women have faced inequality and injustice in almost every aspect of society. Whether it be within the workplace, relationships, equal pay, voting rights, finances, or appearances, there is always a standard that women are held to that is discriminatory and unfair. In the music industry, women are extremely under-represented and have always had to prove that they are capable of the same talents that society deems only possible by their male counterparts. Despite the obstacles that have been set, which are out of women’s control, many female musicians have defied the odds and made a name for themselves in the music industry, along with paving the way for future generations of women to come. Two women who have contributed to changing the standards for female musicians in the 20th century include Antonia Brico and Nadia Noulanger. Their success and involvement in music has created a new path for marginalized communities and demographics to move into the composing and conducting world.

Antonia Brico was born on June 26, 1902 in Rotterdam Netherlands (Duncan, 1) where she lived for six years until 1908 when her foster parents brought her to the United States (Ware 77). While living in California, her foster family renamed and raised her under a different name of Wihelmin Wolthus. Eventually, in 1924 Antonia was able to discover information about her birth family and took back her real name after 16 years (Ware, 77). She faced a lot of abuse and neglect as a child (Duncan, 1), and would develop bad habits such as biting her fingernails as a result. However, as a distraction to stop the nail biting, she began taking piano lessons which opened the door for her to meet mentors and music teachers. (Ware, 77). Her high school choir teacher, Minnie Davis, was a major positive influence in Brico’s life and career (Duncan, 1). Davis would take her to band concerts and introduced her to University of California, “Berkeley professor Paul Steindorff, who later gave her piano lessons.” (Ware, 77).

After graduating high school, Antonia Brico was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley in 1919. To afford her college education, she began “teaching piano, playing dances, and performing on the radio.” She graduated from college in 1923 (Dunbar, 266) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and a minor in Asian philosophy and foreign languages (Ware, 78). After graduation, her next destination was “New York to study piano with Sigismond Stojowski, a noted Polish pianist and teacher.” (Ware, 78). Despite having success and support as a pianist and performer, her real dream was to be a conductor. When mentioning the topic of expanding her talents to leading a group of musicians or an orchestra, she was met with disbelief and insults, some saying that “women could not and should not be symphony conductors” (Duncan, 1). Even her conducting professor at Berkeley, Modeste Alloo, told her that “women did not have the stamina to become conductors” (Duncan, 2).This reaction was due to the fact that she is a female and it was unheard of for a woman to be the conductor, being that men held the prominent roles in orchestras. However, Brico did not let the negativity from people who did not believe in her discourage her from her goals. She built up her self-esteem and confidence to pursue her music career.

Antonia Brico was assisted in becoming a strong and assertive woman who had control of her life with the support of her mentors. In 1926, Antonia went back to the Netherlands and was reunited with her birth family (Ware, 78). While she was there, “she met with the concertmaster of the Amsterdam Philharmonic” (Ware, 78). This interaction set her up for success, because he encouraged her to study with Karl Muck, “a leading Wagner conductor in Germany” (Ware, 78). From there, she was accepted into the University of Berlin and “became the first woman and the first American admitted to the most demanding and prestigious conducting program in Europe” (Duncan, 4). This huge accomplishment began her legacy and showed the music industry that it is possible for women to be in higher education and institutions, and that men are not the only people who are capable of this success. However, men were not in favor of the new diversity, and tried their best to stand in the way of Antonia’s achievement of graduating by postponing her professional debut (Ware, 78). Despite the discriminatory acts of her peers and school officials, Antonia Brico went on to continue to support herself and in 1930 at the age of 28 years old, she became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic (Dunbar, 266).

During the 1930’s, Antonia Brico was living her dream as she conducted throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the tensions of Nazi Germany was rising and Brico left to go back to the United States (Ware, 78). Now living in New York, she was faced with another hardship of The Great Depression. It was difficult for her to find a steady conducting job, so she constructed her own instead. Brico created the Musicians Symphony Orchestra which was “made up of out-of-work musicians, and conducted several performances in the Metropolitan Opera House” (Duncan, 4). Simultaneously, she was hired to conduct orchestras made up of unemployed musicians who wanted to put on performances for the public around the area (Duncan, 4). These opportunities were getting her more exposure as a composer and allowing her to grow her fame and legacy. Brico also created the Women’s Symphony Orchestra (Dunbar, 266) which was a way for women musicians to finally be able to play in an orchestra without the bigotry and prejudice of male players and conductors. Fortunately, the orchestra was a success and notable political figures such as Elenor Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his wife financially supported the orchestra (Ware, 78). Antonia’s talents were recognized and she was asked to be the first woman conductor of the New York Philharmonic in July of 1938 (Duncan, 4), yet again setting an example for women musicians everywhere that it is possible to take on the role of leading one of the country’s best orchestras.

Having success and notability, Antonia Brico decided to allow male musicians into the Women’s Symphony Orchestra and renamed it to the Brico Symphony (Dunbar, 266), making it one of the first mixed orchestras of different genders. The orchestra performed several concerts, but unfortunately it failed financially after “the board of directions withdrew financial support because of the inclusion of men” (Ware, 78). As a result of the lack of support, the orchestra fell apart and eventually ended in 1940 (Duncan, 4). Brico continued to conduct concerts throughout the United States, but decided to settle down in Denver, Colorado in 1942 after being a guest conductor for the Denver Symphony Orchestra and thought that she would be given the professional job as being the new conductor (Duncan, 5). Unfortunately, this role was handed over to a man instead, along with many other professional conducting opportunities that she sought after. Many symphony officials and managers refused to hire Brico because they were afraid of the negative public reaction that people would have (Dunbar, 266). As a result, Antonia was left with conducting amatuer symphonies in the city, as well as teaching private piano lessons and church performances to support herself (Ware, 78).

One of Brico’s students was American vocalist Judy Collins. Collins had taken lessons with Brico from 1949 to 1955 (Ware, 78), and had a great appreciation for her talents and personality. Collins co-directed a film about her mentor called Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974) which is about the hardships that Brico went through as a composer woman trying to build a career and name for herself (Duncan, 5). The interview discusses the inequality and sexism that she went through, but also her lifelong accomplishments. This film gained popularity and got Antonia Brico’s name out into the public again. She began doing guest conducting performances and was invited to conduct major symphonies atLincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Kennedy Center, and the Hollywood Bowl ” (Ware, 78). She became a prominent feminist figure and went on to do telivison appearances and was even inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (Duncan, 5).

On August 3, 1989, Antonia Brico died at the age of eighty-seven (Duncan, 6). She is remembered as a determined and unshakable force that stood up for what she believed in. Despite being a pioneer for women conductors, Brico never referred to herself as a feminist. She believed that she was no different than a man in the music industry and demanded to be treated this way. During a lecture in 1975, Brico stated; “And don’t anybody ever say Brico [is] a ‘woman conductor’… I am a conductor, period” (Ware, 79).

Another woman who has contributed to changing the standards for female musicians in the 20th century includes Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was born on September 16, 1887 in Paris, France (Doyle, 753). Born into a family of musicians, Nadia started to show an interest and passion for music from a very young age and began playing the piano. At the age of ten, she was able to be enrolled in a conservatory as the youngest student in her classes and even won third place in the end-of-year-competition. (Doyle, 753). Her teachers and mentors were astonished with her progression and professionalism at such a young age, “and became the first female to attract wide notice among the Conservatoire faculty” (Doyle, 753). This strong start into the music world was just the beginning for the achievements that she would soon reach.

Nadia Boulanger graduated from the conservatory in 1904 while also becoming the financial head of the household following her fathers death. To make money, Boulanger accepted as many piano accompanist opportunities and performances as she could, as well as teaching private lessons in the family home (Doyle, 753). She was known as a pedagogue who taught with a strict and serious mindset (Dunbar, 268). All of this playing continued to strengthen her keyboard skills and she was eventually “accepted as the assistant to Faure as the great organ Madeleine Church ” (Doyle, 753). Through this opportunity, Nadia was able to perform with several professional orchestras around Europe and the United States and even won the Deuxieme Grand Prix de Rome in 1906 (Doyle, 753). She had many mentors and connections along the way that aided to her success, specifically with Raoul Pugno who was an accomplished French composer and pianist.

As her success as a traveling musician continued to grow, she continued to take care of her family after her fathers death. Her younger sister, Lil Boulanger, was also a musician and preceded in Nadia’s success with being “the first female to capture the coveted first prize in the Prix de Rome competition” in 1913 (Doyle, 753). There’s said to have been some sibling rivalry during this point, comparing the two sisters and threatening Lili’s success to triumph over Nadia. However, Nadia Boulanger was becoming a more renowned and respected teacher which granted her some fame. Even though she was highly respected, she was well aware of the fact that she was a minority, being that most of her students were all male (Dunbar, 268).

In 1921, Nadia Boulanger was granted a teaching position as the first ever faculty of the Conservatoire Americain at Fontainebleau (Doyle, 753). While she taught various subjects such as harmony, counterpoint, and composition, she was introduced to American composer, Aaron Copland. Their musical relationship grew very close, and Copland introduced her to musicians from all over the world who wanted to hear of Boulanger’s teaching styles. (Doyle, 753). Her teaching impacted composers and performers such as Ned Rorem who stated that she was “the most influential teacher since Socrates” (Doyle, 753). Nadia was setting a foundation for women musicians by being so well respected in an industry where men typically get all the credit for being the best in their field.

During the 1920’s Boulanger toured the United States as a soloist in Aaran Copland’s Organ Symphony. During this time, she was teaching lectures and conducting for various different orchestras and was even offered a teaching position at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (Doyle, 754) which she declined. In 1938, Nadia Boulanger became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Dunbar, 268). When she returned to Great Britain, she was welcomed and became the first woman to conduct the Royal Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Dunbar, 268). Her hard work and determination allowed her to be a successful woman in music and attain these legendary titles.

People recognized Nadia Boulanger for the intelligent and revolutionary woman that she was and respected her as someone who was a force to be reckoned with. Her serious demeanor and strict attitude gave her the nickname “the tender tyrant” (Dunbar, 268) and let people know that she was all about the music and was extremely knowledgeable in her craft. Nadia did not bother to talk about gender issues in music and felt it unnecessary to give into the stigma that sex separates men and women’s abilities to succeed. When asked by a reporter to talk about how it felt to be the first woman conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she stated; “I’ve been a woman for a little over fifty years, and I’ve gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job. I don think sex plays that much part.” (Dunbar, 268).

Both Antonia Brico and Nadia Boulanger were strong, successful women who made a legacy for themselves by achieving their goals. Despite the sexism, discrimination, and doubt that they encountered from society and male officials, they were able to prove to generations of women musicians to come that it is possible to defeat the odds. A lot of their success can be drawn from their attitudes. Both of these women were confident in themselves and their musical abilities to overcome the obstacles that have been set in place for centuries. It goes to prove that their legacy is an inspiration to all who have faced injustice and that being assertive and self-assured will change the course of history.

Works Cited
Doyle, Roger O. “Boulanger, Nadia (1887-1979).” Women Composers Vol. 7, edited by Martha Furman Shleifer and Sylvia Glickman, e-book ed., New York, NY, G. K. Hall & Co, 2003, pp. 753-61.

Dunbar, Julie C. “Chapter 12.” Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction, 3rd ed., New York City, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021, pp. 266-68.

Duncan, Elizabeth. “Antonia Brico.” Colorado Encyclopedia, Accessed 17 October 2022.

Ware, Susan, and Stacy Lorraine Braukman, editors. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. E-book ed., Cambridge, Belknap Press, 2004. Google Books.