One of America's leading choral conductors during the second half of the twentieth century, Margaret Hillis actually had her early musical training on piano, tuba, and double bass. She was a junior golf champion and, during World War II, a civilian flying instructor for the U.S. Navy, and the skills that helped her excel in these areas transferred to her later work as a choral director. Hillis was known for eliciting a big, powerful sound, yet with very precise and clear musical articulation and idiomatic pronunciation, thanks to meticulous preparation.
After the war, Hillis attended Indiana University, graduating in 1947, then studied choral conducting at Juilliard until 1949. There followed private study with Robert Shaw, and in 1950 an appointment as director of the American Concert Choir. At this time Hillis began her lifelong habit of assuming multiple simultaneous posts. She taught choral conducting at the Union Theological Seminary (1950-1960) and at Juilliard (1951-1953). To promote choral singing across the country, she established the American Choral Foundation in 1954. Three years later, Fritz Reiner asked her to organize the Chicago Symphony Chorus, a group she headed for decades and which brought Hillis her greatest visibility.
Meanwhile, she accepted short stints with the Santa Fe Opera (1958-1959), the Cleveland Orchestra (1969-1971), and the San Francisco Symphony (1982-1983). Never just a choral conductor, she served as music director of the Kenosha Civic Orchestra (Wisconsin) (1961-1968) and the Chicago Civic Orchestra (from 1967) and Elgin Symphony Orchestra (1971-1985). Hillis also taught during this period, with appointments to Northwestern University (where she directed choral activities from 1968 to 1970) and Indiana University (from 1978). She received honorary doctorates from Temple University and Indiana University.
Eventually, especially during the tenure of Georg Solti, Hillis conducted several Chicago Symphony concerts each season, but almost always they involved big works with chorus. Perhaps her most arresting feat was stepping in for Solti on short notice for a 1977 Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand."