Conductor, chorus director, airplane pilot, educator, activist, mentor, and advocate Margaret Hillis blazed a trail upon which many continue to tread. The first woman to regularly conduct a major symphony orchestra, she was the founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and served for thirty-seven years as its first director, winning nine Grammy Awards.
She was also a flight instructor for the U.S. Navy during World War II, an influential member of the National Endowment for the Arts, and built a reputation for her meticulous score preparation and innovative methods of refining choruses into superb ensembles. She earned the respect of the world’s major conductors along with the admiration and affection of many musicians, colleagues, and music lovers.
But as compelling as what Margaret Hillis achieved is how she deftly circumvented the constant barriers in fields where women were not welcome. Further complicating her career aspirations, Margaret Hillis was a lesbian woman in an era when such an identity would have certainly ended her career.
In Margaret Hillis: Unsung Pioneer, author Cheryl Frazes Hill—a longtime colleague and associate—examines how Hillis was able to overcome the many challenges she faced, navigating a career in ways relatable not only to musicians but also to women in all professions.
Margaret Hillis’s story is one of resilience, determination, and passion for music. Her journey is an inspiration, a portrait of what it takes to succeed at the highest level in any field.
Dr. Cheryl Frazes Hill is the Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the Associate Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (CSC). Beginning as a member of the CSC in 1976, Margaret Hillis appointed Frazes Hill to the CSC conducting staff in 1987. Frazes Hill has served as professor of music at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts since 2002. A frequent guest conductor, Frazes Hill is a published writer for national education and choral journals on topics of her research in music education and choral conducting. She is married to Dr. Gary Hill, and they have two children, Carlyn and Mitchell.
We are living in an age when strong women are accomplishing amazing things—and this is the story of a woman who succeeded in the male world of orchestral conducting and established the award-winning Chicago Symphony Chorus. Her life consisted of challenges continually met and conquered, and her relentless drive for excellence in her profession. Cheryl Frazes Hill gives us a carefully researched, balanced, and well-written account of her eventful life and achievements.
Renowned conductor, composer, and longtime friend of Margaret Hillis
Cheryl Frazes Hill was in a unique position to observe the career of Margaret Hillis because she was close to her on a personal and professional level. What is particularly gratifying about this biography is that it is clearly the work of someone who admires Margaret Hillis’s accomplishments, but at the same time Frazes Hill has retained a balanced objectivity about her subject. I came away from reading this with a greatly increased knowledge about Margaret Hillis, along with a deep appreciation for what she accomplished as a true pioneer.
Former President, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, League of American Orchestras
Dean Emeritus, Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University