Margaret Hillis


Distinguished Alumni Service Award (1994)
B.M., 1947; D.M., 1972
Honorary Degree (1972)
Doctor of Music
MAC Dedication
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: John William Ryan


Margaret Hillis, founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony, began studying the piano at the early age of 5.By the time she was 8, she'd already begun having dreams of one day becoming a famous conductor.

Born in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1921, Hillis studied music at Indiana University, completing her degree in 1947. During her school years, she briefly put her studies on hiatus to work as a civilian flight instructor in Muncie, Indiana during World War II.

After completing her bachelor's degree, Hillis moved to New York, where she studied choral conducting with Robert Shaw at the Juilliard School. She soon became Mr. Shaw's assistant at the Collegiate Chorale, and in 1950 she founded the Tanglewood Alumni Chorus, which later performed as the New York Concert Choir and Orchestra.

Though she was a pioneer for women in the field of orchestral conducting, in the 1950's Hillis began working primarily as a choral conductor for the New York City Opera and the American Opera Society. She taught choral conducting at the Juilliard School and Union Theological Seminary, and formed the American Choral Foundation, an organization that sought to raise the standards of choral performance.

In 1957, famed conductor Fritz Reiner invited Hillis to work for the Chicago Symphony, and in less than ten years she had established one of the finest professional choirs in the country. She also worked with community and regional orchestras, and was director for several years of the Kenosha Civic Orchestra, the Chicago Civic Orchestra and the Elgin Symphony. Additionally, Hillis conducted orchestras at Carnegie Hall and was a guest conductor for the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Oregon Symphony the Minnesota Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Hillis received Grammy awards for nine recordings of which she prepared the chorus for, among them a Verdi Requiem, Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," two recordings of the Brahms German Requiem, Haydn's ''Creation'' and Bach's Mass in B minor.

Hillis received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from IU in 1994, as well as an Honorary Degree in 1972. In addition to conducting, Hillis played the piano, trumpet, horn, saxophone and string bass.

She passed away in Evanston, Illinois at the age of 76.