Marking International Women’s Day by celebrating a pioneer in UK arts education

Published: March 8, 2017


The inspiring story of a 19th century pioneer in UK arts education has been uncovered by researchers at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

In 1892, the founding institution of the Royal Conservatoire appointed its first professor … Emma Ritter-Bondy. Not only was Emma the first to be bestowed with the title at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music, she is believed to be the very first female professor of a UK higher education institution. Emma’s historic appointment as Professor of Piano was made in the same year that women were only just permitted to study at Scottish universities. As the only woman to hold such a post in an environment which was almost entirely male dominated, it put Emma at the forefront of arts education in Scotland and beyond.

The Royal Conservatoire has been groundbreaking throughout its history and is one of the world’s most multi-disciplinary conservatoires, offering specialised teaching across dance, drama, music, production and film. It is ranked sixth in the world for performing arts education and number one in Scotland for graduate employability. It was the first conservatoire in the UK to have its own degree awarding powers, the only conservatoire in Europe to offer education in all of the performing arts and the first conservatoire to offer a BA Performance degree in British Sign Language and English. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland also leads the way in attracting applications and entrants to higher education in the performing arts through its award-winning widening access initiatives. The number of full-time students from the 40% most deprived areas in Scotland has gone from 26.9% in 2015/16 to 28.5% in 2016/17, an increase of 1.6%.

Professor Jeffrey Sharkey, Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, said:

“Throughout its 170 year existence, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has nurtured a culture of equality, diversity and inclusivity. Emma’s groundbreaking appointment demonstrates this commitment from an early stage. We remain proud of our ability to develop every person’s unique potential and place this at the heart of the work of the Conservatoire.”

Professor Anna Birch, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Research Lecturer in Drama, said:

“As a current female professor at the Royal Conservatoire, it’s exciting to discover that the first ever female professor in a UK higher education institution was from our founding institution, the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music. Emma was a pioneer and broke the glass ceiling, attesting to the egalitarian and enlightened attitudes of our 19th century founders. She helped to pave the way for the many strong and successful women in our community, who began their journeys at the Royal Conservatoire. As a specialist institution, we are addressing equality from a broader perspective, designed to question, challenge and overturn historic and rehearsed assumptions of women in Scotland and the world.

“The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland fosters a culture proud of its diversity and politics of inclusion – an agenda of fairness is our priority – and is committed to giving all students the opportunity to develop themselves through collaborative and interdisciplinary education.”

Stuart A. Harris-Logan, Archives Officer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, said:

“Accidental discovery is one of the joys of working in an archive and we recently found out that the Conservatoire’s first professor, Emma Ritter-Bondy, was in fact a UK first.

“Appointed Professor of Piano in 1892, Emma predates the University of Reading’s Edith Morley (previously thought to be the UK’s first female professor) by 16 years. Professor Ritter-Bondy taught with us at a pivotal time for music pedagogy in Glasgow when Allan Macbeth (an alumnus of the Leipzig Conservatorium) was seeking to establish a European-style conservatoire in Scotland, leading to the institution we have today.”

Emma Maria Bondy was born in 1838 in Graz, Austria and studied at the Vienna Conservatory in the mid-1850s. She married artist Franz Ritter in Vienna in 1862 and had two children, Ida who was born in March 1874 and Camillo, who followed in December 1875. When Emma was widowed in 1879, she decided to leave her home in Koblenz, Germany to start anew in Glasgow, and settled in the city by 1881. In autumn 1892, when Emma was appointed Professor of Piano at the Glasgow Athenaeum, she also became a British citizen.

Stuart added: “Perhaps one of the reasons Emma moved to Glasgow was that she was likely to have been actively recruited by Allan Macbeth around the time that the Glasgow Athenaeum was employing many talented musicians from Europe such as Henri Verbrugghen, our violin teacher and de facto head of strings, who in 1915 was headhunted to found the Sydney Conservatorium and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”