Will the real “first woman to conduct a European orchestra” please stand up?

Over the past six months, I’ve seen four different women hailed by clickbait headlines as “the first woman to conduct a European orchestra”… but in taking a look at those articles, I noticed there was a 64-year range between the dates of those women’s conducting premieres. 

The biographical info about each conductor was factually correct – so how could that be??  Upon closer inspection, the differences came down to one little word – “professional” – and how each author conceptualized that term. 

A square black and white image, showing tiled headshots of four historical women conductors.  In the top row, Josephine Amann-Weinlich and Mary Wurm wear high-necked, longsleeved white lace dresses.  In the bottom row, Freida Belinfante and Antonia Brico have short hair, buttoned white blouses, and black blazers.  Turquoise words that cut diagonally across the center read "Who came first?"
Four pioneering women conductors from the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Clockwise from top left: Josephine Amann-Weinlich, Mary Wurm, Antonia Brico, and Frieda Belinfante.  

It’s such a commonly used word these days, it’s easy to take its definition for granted – but for discussions about historical women musicians, unpacking common assumptions that go with professionalism is actually super important. 

Just because it wasn’t considered socially acceptable for Western women to become orchestral musicians until the 20th century doesn’t mean there weren’t historical women who devoted all their time, energy, and resources towards becoming skilled musicians, promoting classical music, and performing in ensembles.    

While I’m excited that people are talking about these amazing women and their groundbreaking achievements, one of the most important skills learned from studying history is vetting and interpreting information.  I’m not here to point fingers, but I wanted to use this as an opportunity to explore a few unspoken biases about the way women are framed in historical narratives while also making space to celebrate their achievements.   

“Professionalism” as a social construct

Professional (noun):

  1. a person who does a job that needs special training and a high level of education
  2. a person who does a sport or other activity as a paid job rather than as a hobby
  3. a person who has a lot of skill and experience
Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

Let’s start by clarifying “professionalism” – this concept has changed over time, and is also influenced by culture, gender, class, and ethnicity.  Its modern form came out of the early 1800s, during early capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.  This era also saw several European revolutions, and was the time period when many of our orchestral traditions became codified.

As a result of those socio-economic forces, musicians moved away from employment by nobility in a patronage system towards entrepreneurship in commercial structures including performance, publishing, and journalism, where success was directly correlated with reputation among the public at large.  

Women served as organizers, composers, performers, contractors, conductors, and chroniclers of classical music long before they were allowed to conduct musical activities publicly for profit.  But without visibility in professional spaces, many of their achievements remain unacknowledged.  

Social environment of the orchestra

Returning to that connection with post-Revolutionary Europe – 19th century psychology of crowds also influenced the evolution of the orchestral conductor.  Trauma from revolutionary violence caused a fear of crowds getting swept up in strong emotions and giving in to “primitive” instincts. 

In previous eras, the role of conductor rotated between different members of the orchestra or was performed by the keyboard player or first violinist.  However, as this century progressed, conductors became ‘Napoleonic’ figures of control and emotional restraint, and military discipline became introduced into large orchestras. 

It may seem like common sense that maintaining order during rehearsals helps make the most efficient use of time in navigating the complexity of orchestral music and conveying directions. However, that logic also helped foster an authoritarian, hierarchical environment on a micro level.  And while auditions outwardly rank musicians in terms of technical skill, nonverbal social cues also contribute to the perceived status of a musician.  These can include everything from your energy and behavior during rehearsals to the musical colleagues in your network. 

This results in not only a ranking of ensembles and orchestral chairs, but also a social hierarchy – and the two reinforce each other.  And it’s that second, unspoken hierarchy, that often works against women musicians, because so many valued characteristics have underlying masculine associations.  

Gendered associations with conducting

Part of the reason that we see so few women as conductors is that conducting is one of the orchestral positions most heavily associated with masculinity.  Think of the characteristics personified by a stereotypical  “maestro” – confidence, charisma, strength, authority, intellect, and control.  Many industries associate these traits with competent leadership, and they’re commonly viewed as favorable and gender-affirming qualities in straight white men.  

However, patriarchal Western stereotypes commonly paint women as the opposite – delicate, petite, fragile, and demure.  As a result, women conductors face an even steeper uphill battle than some instrumentalists – the less that your orchestral role aligns with gendered social expectations, the more difficult it is to achieve. This becomes an even bigger minefield when women, as an underestimated demographic, face increased scrutiny, higher pressure to prove themselves, and a narrower window of success.

“The ladies are said not to have played badly, but Miss Wurm in no way showed herself to be a conductor genius.”

German newspaper Signale, regarding a performance of Mary Wurm conducting her all-women orchestra in 1899.

While essentialists might argue that male and female bodies appear physically different on the podium, the meanings that we assign to those differences are not inherent but socially constructed.  As we grow up, we learn mannerisms and gestures that we adapt within the cultural expectations of our social roles.  Therefore, the exact same gesture (yes, including  conducting gestures), made by a man and a woman, may be perceived differently depending on the gender identity of the person in question.  

What is a “major” orchestra?

One last note – some of the articles about women conductors that I saw seemed to imply “the first woman to conduct a major orchestra” even though they omitted the term “major” from their headlines.  The only definition of a “major orchestra” I’ve seen delineates top organizations by budget, but that doesn’t necessarily work when you’re looking at historical ensembles with limited surviving records.  

For the sake of this conversation, I’ll use the working definition that a major orchestra is a symphony orchestra with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion that’s built on the traditional career orchestra model and is a distinguished cultural institution in Western society.  They perform for-profit concerts on large public stages and center a relatively narrow canon of works by historical European male composers. Although some major orchestras tour, they are usually based in large urban cultural centers.

Historically, these ensembles have predominantly contracted white, cishet men (with conservatory education or music degrees) as instrumentalists, conductors, and artistic directors.  And although modern major orchestras are co-ed ensembles, many still exhibit strong a masculine bias in their personnel, leadership, and programming.  

The first women to conduct European orchestras

Now that we’ve outlined some of the underlying gender biases for professional conductors, let’s take a look at the four women I’ve seen hailed as “the first woman to conduct a European orchestra,” their respective achievements that cracked the glass ceiling, and some of the hidden reasons behind discrepancies over who really came “first.”

I won’t go into a ton of detail about these women’s careers, since I’m focusing on their conducting debuts – but I’ll link a bio in each header, so you can click on their names to learn more. 🙂

Josephine Amann-Weinlich was a conductor, violinist, pianist, and composer who began her musical career at an early age with her father’s folk singers’ company.  She most likely learned violin and piano from her father, since no surviving records show her attending or earning a degree from a European conservatory.  

As young women, Josephine and her sisters became regular performers in Vienna, forming a string quartet that grew into a chamber orchestra of 6-8 musicians. 

Dutch conductor Josephine Amann-Weinlich sits with her hands clasped together and her right elbow leaning against a table.  She gazes to her right.  Her hair is gathered on top of her head with short bangs, and she wears a white long-sleeved gown with lace trim and a high neck secured with a big black bow.

In 1869, this Neue Wiener Damenorchester began touring Europe – and they continued touring through 1871, when they crossed the Atlantic for an extensive tour of the US, inspiring the formation of many women’s orchestras along the way. 

When Josephine returned to Vienna, she placed an advertisement in the paper to recruit ladies for a larger ensemble – and in 1873, the Erstes Europäische Damenorchester gave their first performance.  This group toured Europe in the mid-1870s and played evening concerts at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair.   

Josephine Amann-Weinlich faces an audience and gestures to her orchestra of 40 women with her right hand.  The orchestra sits behind her onstage, holding their instruments ready to play.  All of the women wear long white dresses with high necklines, layered skirts, and lace trim.
Woodcut by Vincenz Katzler of Josephine Amann-Weinlich and the Erstes Europäische Damenorchester performing a concert in 1874.

Since the name of this group literally translates to the “First European Women’s Orchestra,” I’m kinda baffled as to how some people miss this (the internet wasn’t around yet, but that couldn’t possibly be any more keyword optimized!).  The fact that we’ve got so many surviving pictures and newspaper articles about their performances from two decades before any other all-women orchestras gained much publicity suggests that this group was actually a huge deal at the time.  

Mary Wurm was a German pianist, improviser, composer, and conductor.  She earned her degree from the Stuttgart Conservatory, and received further instruction in piano from Clara Schumann and composition from Carl Reinecke.  She became the first woman to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker on 5 November 1887, at age 27, when she hired the orchestra to perform a program of her compositions.  Mary served as the concert organizer, the conductor for her overture, and the soloist on her piano concerto. 

In 1898, she also formed the Erster Deutscher Frauen-Streichorchesterverein (First German Women’s Orchestra Association), with the goal of creating a space where women musicians in Berlin could have permanent employment with a fixed income. 

Mary Wurm stands and looks to the left of the camera, holding her baton and a sheet of music.  She has short hair and wears a longsleeved white dress with ruffled lace at the collar and sleeves.
Concert program from 5 November 1887, when Mary Wurm premiered a set of her compositions with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  The program indicates that she conducted her overture and performed as the piano soloist.
Program from Mary Wurm’s concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 5 November, 1887.

Unlike Josephine Amann-Weinlich, Mary Wurm does have a music degree.  However, although female students made up a majority of musicians at some conservatories during this period, it was not uncommon for classes to be gender-segregated, and for women’s exams to measure different standards.  As a result, women’s degrees did not convey quite the same credentials.  

On top of that, this concert was a guest appearance for Mary, not part of a full-time gig.  And even though she did conduct a major orchestra, she paid them to let her do it at a time when soloist-concerts made up a significant part of the ensemble’s income.  However, her conducting debut took place 15 years before the first women became hired as full-time members of a major European orchestra – so Mary’s public performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker is still a big milestone for women in music history.

Antonia Brico was a Dutch conductor and pianist who made her professional conducting debut in 1930 – also as a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This performance was part of the final for her graduate studies at the Berlin State Academy of Music. Antonia also made appearances with the Los Angeles Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Hamburg Philharmonic, and became the conductor of the Women’s Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1934.  Four years later, she also became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.  

Antonia Brico holds up her baton in her right hand, as if gesturing to her orchestra.  Her short hair is pulled back with a headband, and she wears a white button-up blouse with a black blazer.
Newspaper headline from the New York Times that reads: "Philharmonic Led by Antonia Brico.  First woman ever to lead the orchestra conducts entire program at Stadium.  Audience is impressed.  Loudly applauds music that includes works of Beethoven Liszt and Wagner."
New York Times headline for Antonia’s first concert conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1938.

It’s interesting to see the parallels with Mary Wurm, who preceded Brico by 43 years – after making their debuts as guest conductors with the same orchestra, both went on to conduct all-women ensembles about a decade later.  However, unlike Mary, Antonia was considered a professional musician.  So the acknowledgement of Antonia’s credentials by musical society at large and the ability to apply for professional positions (as opposed to having to pay her way into performance opportunities) make up the key differences between these two women.  

Last but not least, we have Frieda Belinfante.  I’m glad to see some LGBTQ+ representation in the conductors that I found, but again, we’re skipping ahead a few decades.  A cellist and conductor, Frieda founded the Het Klein Orkest chamber orchestra in the Netherlands and directed the ensemble from 1937 to 1941. Frieda became a member of the Dutch resistance during WWII, and continued her career after the war in California as a faculty member at UCLA. She also founded the Orange County Philharmonic.

Frieda Belinfante sits with her hands in her lap, holding a cigarette in her left hand, and looks off to her right.  She has short hair, and wears a white blouse with a black blazer.

This was a full-time gig where Frieda was recognized as a professional, and she was both the conductor and artistic director of a co-ed ensemble – so this checks all the invisible boxes, even though Het Klein Orkest was technically a chamber orchestra.  (Even today, it’s more rare to see a woman as an artistic director than a conductor, so the fact that she did both is actually a huge deal). 

However, Frieda formed her orchestra about 50-60 years after her late-Victorian predecessors, and we miss a LOT of important history if this is where we begin our stories about women conductors.  

Redefining “firsts”

“Manufacturing firsts creates cycles of supposed rediscovery that ultimately force women to repeat the same breakthroughs over and over again, diverting valuable energy and resources from real progress.”

Leah Broad

So after all that, who was the real “first woman to conduct a European orchestra”??  The answer is, all of them… but also, none.  If you view each of their debuts as an isolated event in music history, that only reinforces the idea that women conductors are exceptions to the rule.  But in looking at the progression between their achievements, you can see an underlying narrative of women who stood up for themselves, formed supportive communities with their peers, and progressively leveled up their available opportunities.  

Satirical sketch from a German newspaper in 1853 showing a woman conductor with a feather headdress and big skirts, holding her baton in the air and leaning against a music stand with musical scores piled beneath it.  She looks towards the audience, while an orchestra of women musicians plays behind her on stage.
Matinee musicale: Damenkonzert a la Strauss.
Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, January 1853.

Each woman stood on the shoulders of conductors who came before – even Josephine Amann-Weinlich.  In January 1853, the Düsseldorfer Monatshefte published this caricature satirizing a woman conducting an all-women orchestra in a matinée concert of works by Strauss.  I haven’t been able to find any identifying info about the ensemble depicted, but its existence begs the question:  Why would that newspaper have even bothered to print this, unless women’s orchestras had already become a big enough deal that they were seen as a disruptive to previously existing norms??  

These gaps in the story shed light on a bias in historical information – one that enables and enforces inequality in professional musical standards.  However, telling the stories we do know about is necessary to support our women conductors of the future – not only in learning from the past, but also in showing that women conductors are just as skilled and valid – and if that’s a musical role you aspire to, you are not (and never have been) alone.  

Additional Resources

All of the women above were trailblazers, but not the only conductors making their premieres around the turn of the 20th century.  Click on the names below for a brief intro to a few of their contemporaries from Europe, Brazil, and the US!

Late 19th century women conductors

Early 20th century women conductors

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