Caduff, Sylvia (1937—)

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Caduff, Sylvia (1937—)

Swiss conductor. Born in Chur, Switzerland, on January 7, 1937; attended the Lucerne Conservatory.

Was the first woman to win the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition (1966); served as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic; was general director of the Orchestra of the City of Solingen, Germany, the first European woman to hold such a position.

Sylvia Caduff's childhood wish was to become a conductor. A symphony orchestra, she reasoned, was the only "instrument" that offered her all the possibilities she felt she needed to make music. Many thought such ambition for a woman was crazy, but she persisted. Though she studied music, Caduff agreed to earn a diploma in education and to teach in an elementary classroom to please her parents, but after a brief time at teaching, she devoted all her energies to her dream. While Caduff was studying at the Lucerne Conservatory, Herbert von Karajan came to teach a course. Caduff approached him, though she did not have a conducting diploma, and asked how he felt about women conducting. "If you are gifted why not conduct?," came his surprising response. "If you are gifted we can make you an example." After Caduff completed her schooling in Switzerland, she went to Berlin to study with von Karajan who was then conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. She became a first-class conductor during her three-year apprenticeship.

Caduff realized the unlikelihood of a woman being appointed to any position as a conductor, so she established her reputation by entering competitions. Following her selection as one of four finalists in the Guido Cantelli Conducting Competition, two judges encouraged her to enter competitions in the United States where, they felt, she would have a better chance of being judged on her own merit. "You should not have come to Italy," she was told, "for here a woman has no chance at all." Instead, she was encouraged to enter the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Competition, and the Swiss government, regarding her entry as an honor for the country, underwrote her travel costs. There were 34 conductors representing 23 countries in the competition, where an unpaid jury graded performances over a two-week period. Speaking of Caduff's performance, one critic wrote that she "led the orchestra expertly and even passionately." In 1966, Sylvia Caduff was the first woman to win first-place in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Competition, an achievement that gained her an assistantship to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. In 1967, in the World Journal Tribune, Miles Kastendieck discussed a performance conducted by Caduff when Bernstein fell ill, "At 29, Miss Caduff now has the distinction of being the first young lady to conduct the Philharmonic officially…. With her fire, vitality, and commanding beat, she can have the world at her feet; indeed, she had the Philharmonic playing for her in exciting fashion last night."

When Caduff returned to Europe, she made several guest appearances, including her British debut conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967. This invitation came only a few years after Sir Thomas Beecham had banned all women from holding a position in the orchestra. "Beecham would presumably have been horrified to see his orchestra last night," wrote one critic, "then astonished to hear it playing so well." For the next decade, Sylvia Caduff made many guest appearances. Though she had managed to break into the conducting world, she had not yet gained a permanent orchestra. In 1977, the City of Solingen, Germany, chose her from 12 candidates to be general music director. Caduff continued to perform as a guest conductor in addition to the 18-to-20 concerts a year she conducted in Solingen.

"I thought that when women orchestral conductors made music as good as everyone else we would be accepted," said Caduff. "But this is not so. Some people think women are not able to do something special." Breaking down the prejudice of the musical world proved a formidable task for women in the 20th century. First they struggled to be allowed to play in all-male orchestras and then to conduct and compose for these orchestras. Those places like the City of Solingen that were willing to break with tradition and offer women like Sylvia Caduff permanent positions were significant in helping women conductors to take their places at the podium.


Le Page, Jane Weiner. "Sylvia Caduff: Orchestral Conductor," in Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies. Vol. II. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988, pp. 56–66.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia