From Mary Wurm to Susanna Mälkki

Female Conductors and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Antonia Brico conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1930
(Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild)

The Swiss Madeleine Carruzzo was the first woman to be offered an audition with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and in 1982 she took up her position in the first violin section – exactly one hundred years after the orchestra was founded. This event attracted a lot of attention in the press, which was of the opinion that accepting women in the orchestra was something that was long overdue – and which makes it all the more astonishing that female conductors appear very early in the orchestra’s history.

Mary Wurm – Pianist, Composer, Conductor

The first woman on the podium of the orchestra was Mary Wurm from England, who conducted a concert by the Philharmoniker at the Berlin Sing-Akademie 130 years ago, on 5 November 1887. At the age of 27, the student of Clara Schumann already enjoyed enormous success as a pianist through Europe. But she had talent not only as a pianist, but also as a composer and conductor. And she wanted demonstrate these skills, too. In her concert with the Philharmoniker, she exclusively presented her own works: a piano concerto, a concert overture, plus songs and pieces for solo piano. As the programme leaflet shows, Mary Wurm only conducted the overture. For the piano concerto, she took on the role of the soloist, while the orchestra was directed by Gustav Kogel. And one more thing the programme leaflet reveals: Mary Wurm is mentioned as the “concert organiser”, which means that she hired the Berliner Philharmoniker to present her works to the public. At the time, such so-called “soloist concerts” formed an important source of income for the orchestra.

Lise Maria Mayer and the “Kokain Scandal”

And they remained an important source for a long time. In 1929, the Viennese composer Lise Maria Mayer, a student of Gustav Mahler, hired the Berliner Philharmoniker for the world premiere of her “Kokain” symphony. Unfortunately, ticket sales were so bad that Lise Maria Mayer’s husband resorted to an unusual ruse: he placed a marriage advertisement in the newspaper, in which a wealthy widow invited interested parties to come to the concert for a first meeting. Many marriageable men responded, but the ruse was discovered: there was a scandal and Mayer’s husband had to bear the financial consequences. On top of that, Lise Maria Mayer did not manage to convince artistically either. The critic of the magazine Signale für die musikalische Welt described the conductor as dull and uninspired, and thought her symphony was an impertinence.

Highly talented university graduates

At that time, there were also a number of female conductors whose skills did catch the attention of the press. Among them was Eva Brunelli who, on 8 November 1923, was the first woman to conduct a full-length programme with the Berliner Philharmoniker. She had “musical security and artistic intelligence,” as the Signale reported. Just one year later, the English Ethel Leginska was on the podium of the Philharmoniker. Like Mary Wurm, she was a pianist, conductor and composer and she introduced herself in all these capacities in her concert on 13 November 1924. In 1930, there were even two women who performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker: the Brazilian Joanidia Sodré, and Antonia Brico who was born in Rotterdam and grew up in New York. For both women, the Philharmoniker concert formed the final part of their music degrees in Berlin. The Hungarian violinist Marta Linz and the pianist Elly Ney worked together with the orchestra during the 1930s, both as soloists and as conductors.

Younger generation of women conductors

After the Second World War, Sylvia Caduff was the first woman invited to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker. The then general music director of Solingen and pupil of Herbert von Karajan, stood in for the indisposed maestro on 15 October 1978 and earned cries of bravo from the Berlin audience. Over the past few decades, a new generation of women has come of age to conduct Philharmoniker programmes: Simone Young, Konstantia Gourzi, Petra Müllejans, Barbara Hannigan, Emmanuelle Haïm – and Susanna Mälkki, who made her Philharmoniker debut this season in March 2008 with works by Ferruccio Busoni, Béla Bartók, Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean Sibelius.

Ethel Leginska
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Simone Young
(Photo: Klaus Lefebre)
Emmanuelle Haïm
(Photo: Cordula Groth)
Susanne Mälkki
(Photo: Simon Fowler)