Henry Lewis
Marilyn Horne and Henry Lewis in 1961, photo by Carl Van Vechten
Born(1932-10-16)October 16, 1932
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
DiedJanuary 26, 1996(1996-01-26) (aged 63)
New York City, U.S.
Years active1948–1991
Known forDirecting and conducting:
Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra;
Los Angeles Philharmonic;
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Marilyn Horne
(m. 1960; div. 1972)
External audio
audio icon You may listen to Henry Lewis conducting the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra performing the Concerto for Violin in D major Opus 35 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1956 here on 7aso.org

Henry Jay Lewis (October 16, 1932 – January 26, 1996) was an American double-bassist and orchestral conductor whose career extended over four decades. A child prodigy, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 16, becoming the first African-American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra and, later, the first African-American symphony orchestra conductor in the United States. As musical director of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, he supported America's cultural diplomacy initiatives in Europe after World War II.[1][2][3]

Early life and education

Henry Jay Lewis was the only child of Henry J. Lewis, an automobile dealer and Mary Josephine Lewis, who was a nurse. Originally from Los Angeles, his musical education started early in life at the age of five. It included studies on the piano and subsequently the clarinet as well as various string instruments. His mother immediately recognized her son's natural musical gifts and encouraged him to perform with amateur orchestras while attending both parochial and public school. His father, however, was less enthusiastic, since professional opportunities did not exist for African-Americans in the field of classical music at that time. Undaunted, Lewis persevered and in Junior High School he undertook studies in both voice and the double bass, reasoning that his professional endeavors might be improved since double-bass players were rare. His virtuoso talents on the instrument earned him a scholarship, and Lewis subsequently attended the University of Southern California.[4]

Musical career

In 1948, at the age of 16, Lewis was invited to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic, becoming the first African-American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra.[1] After six years performing as a double-bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Lewis was abruptly drafted into the United States Army in 1954. In addition to continuing his performances on the double-bass, Lewis also conducted the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany and the Netherlands while serving in the United States Armed Forces (1955–1956).[2][5][6][7][8] Under his musical direction, the orchestra concertized throughout Europe in support of America's cultural diplomacy initiatives during the post World War II era.[9][10][11]

In 1957, Lewis completed his service in the United States Army and returned home to Los Angeles. In 1961, Lewis gained national recognition when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, a post he held from 1961 to 1965. His appearance as a substitute for the ailing Igor Markevitch in 1961 featured arias by Giuseppe Verdi as sung by his wife Marilyn Horne. The music critic Albert Golberg of the Los Angeles Times observed that Lewis exhibited a conductor's natural flair for command during the performance. In addition, Lewis' program was applauded for its musicality.[1] In 1963 and 1964 he traveled with his orchestra in Western Europe and Yugoslavia under the auspices of the United States' Department of State's Cultural Presentations Program, as one of a select group of ensembles which represented American culture abroad as "cultural ambassadors".[12][13] Lewis was also appointed as a member of the California Arts Commission in 1964.[14]

Even during these early years in his career, Lewis' musical interests clearly extended beyond the traditional symphonic repertoire. As early as 1959, Lewis founded and directed the String Society of Los Angeles, an ensemble which specialized in the performance of chamber music.[15][16] During this period, he also demonstrated his interest in the vast operatic repertoire by serving as music director of the Los Angeles Opera.[15] Always eager to share his artistic expertise, in 1969 he also served as a founding member of the nonprofit Black Academy of Arts and Letters which endeavored to promote and cultivate excellence in the African American performing arts.[15][17]

After his successful tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic was completed in 1965, Lewis acquired an international reputation as a talented young symphonic conductor. This enabled him to accept guest appearances with leading orchestral ensembles both in the United States as well as abroad. Appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra were frequent during this period in the 1960s.[16]

In 1968 Lewis became the conductor and musical director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Newark, and continued as musical director from 1968 until 1976. During this time, he transformed the group from a small community ensemble of largely part-time instrumentalists into a nationally recognized orchestra.[16] Lewis vastly increased the orchestra's performance schedule from 22 concerts per year to 100 concerts per season and recruited several first tier soloists such as: Itzhak Perlman and Misha Dichter. Appearances by the orchestra at premier concert venues including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center soon followed.[4][18]

As the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra, Lewis also demonstrated a devotion to presenting music to the entire community by increasing the orchestra's outreach into New Jersey's ghettos and working class neighborhoods, where performances of classical music were virtually unknown. Always eager to surmount artificial boundaries between people Lewis soon scheduled concert appearances within neighborhoods which had largely been destroyed during the riots of 1968.[16] Audiences were even invited into Symphony Hall in Newark for a modest one dollar admission charge. In order to attract even larger crowds, Lewis scheduled appearances by his wife Marilyn Horne as a bonus. Lewis was determined to shatter the myth that classical music is essentially an elitist art form and patiently scheduled performances at outdoor concert venues as well as local high school auditoriums throughout New Jersey. He was noted for his relaxed and informal style during concert appearances, and even encouraged his audiences to break into wild applause between movements if they were so inclined.[19][4]

As an educator, Lewis joined forces with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to record an educational film for the benefit of high school and elementary students in 1970. By citing excerpts from the symphonic literature, Lewis strove to introduce students to the varied tonal qualities inherent within the instruments of the modern orchestral ensemble while also emphasizing the central role played by the string section.[20]

Overcoming racial boundaries once again, Lewis emerged as the first African-American to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1972.[15][17] His Metropolitan Opera Orchestra debut in 1972 featured a performance of Puccini's La bohème with Anna Moffo in the role of Mimi and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo. It was well received by critics at The New York Times who declared that the Metropolitan Opera exercised good judgment by engaging him.[19][4] He first appeared with the orchestra in 1965 while collaborating with the pianist Earl Wild in a George Gershwin Night outdoor concert at the landmark Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan, New York. While conducting at The Met from 1972-1977 he collaborated with several leading operatic vocalists including: James McCracken as Don José in Bizet's Carmen (1973), Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Pilar Lorengar as Mimi in Puccini's La bohème (1973), Franco Corelli as Roméo and Adriana Maliponte as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1974), Enrico Di Giuseppe as Lindoro in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri (1974), Elinor Ross as Amelia and Luciano Pavarotti as Riccardo in a Gala Performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (March 1975) and Renata Scotto as Berthe and James McCracken as Jean of Leyden in Meyerbeer's Le Prophéte (1977).[21] Lewis also conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on its international concert tour to Japan in 1975.[4][19]

After retiring from the New Jersey Symphony in 1976, Lewis toured as a guest conductor in all of the major opera houses and appeared as a guest conductor for such leading opera and symphonic ensembles as: the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the Hamburg State Opera Orchestra, the Scottish Opera Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Appearances in Milan, Paris, and Copenhagen were also common. These successful appearances led to his appointment in 1976 as musical director of the Opera-Musik Theatre Institute in New Jersey.[16]

From 1989 to 1991, when Kees Bakels succeeded him, he was principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony in Hilversam.[4] He continued to concertize in later years even as he struggled with complications from lung cancer.[1][2]


Henry Lewis' recordings illustrate his professional interest in a variety of diverse composers representing several different traditions in the history of classical music. In addition, they demonstrate his technical prowess for mastering a variety of divergent and technically challenging scores. In the symphonic repertoire, he recorded major works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Peter llyich Tchaikovsky, illustrating his mastery of works by several of the masters from the Classical era into the Romantic period and beyond. These recordings include Richard Strauss' epic tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. Yet it is also clear that he was quite comfortable conducting compositions from the dawn of the era of symphonic jazz, including George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris. He even ventured to complete a recording of the technically challenging Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff with the American pianist Ivan Davis in 1971.[22][23]

In the operatic repertoire, his interests included compositions by prominent French Romantic composers such as: Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, as well as the nineteenth century German operatic composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Yet he also collaborated with his wife Marilyn Horne in recordings of cantatas and songs by composers from the Baroque era including Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.[22][23][24]

In the realm of popular contemporary music, he also recorded songs from the stage musical Carmen Jones featuring the music of Georges Bizet and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.[25]

Henry Lewis' musical legacy also includes several recordings from the operatic repertoire with his wife Marilyn Horne.[16] Over the course of several decades starting in the 1960s he recorded over twenty albums for several leading international record labels including: Decca Records, London Records, RCA Red Seal, CBS Masterworks, Contour records, Red Label, RPO Records, EMI Records, Opera D'Oro and RelArt. His collaborators on these recordings include several of the world's leading international vocalists and pianists of his era including: Gabriel Bacquier, Boris Carmeli. Ryland Davies, Ivan Davis, Plácido Domingo, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Giacomotti, Robert El Hage, Sherrill Milnes, Fritz Peter, Leontyne Price, Margherita Rinaldi, Janis Vakarelis, and Nicola Zaccaria.[22][23]

Performance style

During the course of a professional musical career which ranged over four decades, Lewis earned critical acclaim from a variety of leading music critics. As early as 1961, Albert Golberg of The Los Angeles Times noted that Lewis possessed a conductor's natural flair for commanding his orchestra.[1] Donal Henahan of The New York Times noted in 1972 that Lewis' debut with the Metropolitan Orchestra was highly successful and that Lewis possessed a complete understanding of Puccini's broad musical lyricism.[4] Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times observed that his insightful interpretation of Rossini's Siege of Corinth with Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall moved the audience to pandemonium. This was immediately followed by a surge of ovations which brought the concert to a standstill for nearly five minutes.[4]

Awards and honors

For his outstanding contributions to music, Henry J. Lewis was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2015.[1][2][26] His recording with Leontyne Price for RCA Red Seal (ARL1-3522, 1980) of "Great Soprano Arias from Handel and Britten" was awarded the Grammy Award in 1981 in the category of Best Classical Vocal Soloist Performance.[2][27][28]

Lewis was also the recipient of several honorary degrees from Saint Peter's University (1972), Rutgers University (1969) and Rider University (1969).[29][30][31]

Personal life

From 1960 to 1979, Lewis was married to opera singer Marilyn Horne, who often credits him with her early development as a singer.[4][32] They had a daughter, Angela.[33]

Lewis died from a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 63 at his New York City apartment.[1]


Henry Lewis' discography includes several recordings in which he collaborates with his wife, Marilyn Horne. Included among them are recordings of: Le prophète by Giacomo Meyerbeer (CBS, 1976) featuring James McCracken (as Jean of Leyden), Renata Scotto (as Berthe) and Horne in the role of Fides. It was also recorded live with Nicolai Gedda and Margherita Rinaldi in Turin (1970). Additional recordings featuring Marilyn Horne include: Souvenirs of a Golden Era (Decca Records, 1966) and Marilyn Horne Recital (Decca Records, 1964).

Included within Henry J. Lewis' discography are the following recordings:[23]


See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Gordon, Larry (January 28, 1996). "Henry Lewis; Symphony Conductor Broke Racial Barriers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e Brown 2015. p. 197.
  3. ^ Appiah 2005. p. 563.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i McFadden, Robert D. (January 29, 1996). "Henry Lewis, Conductor Who Broke Racial Barriers of U.S. Orchestras, Is Dead at 63". The New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  5. ^ Brown 2015. p. 211.
  6. ^ "7th Army Symphony: Members". 7th Army Symphony. 2019. Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  7. ^ "Henry Lewis (conductor)". Bach Cantatas Website. 2001. Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  8. ^ Lepard, David (1956). "Henry J. Lewis and the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra". The Instrumentalist. Vol. 11. Association for the Advancement of Instrumental Music.
  9. ^ Canarina 1998.
  10. ^ Beal 2006. p. 49.
  11. ^ Brown 2015. p. 311.
  12. ^ Department of State Hearings - United States Congress Senate Committee on Appropriations - 1964 p.1006 Henry Lewis and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on books.google.com
  13. ^ International Information and Cultural Series - United States' Department of State 1964 - Henry Lewis founder of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra p. 28 on books.google.com
  14. ^ California Legislature 1964. 1. p. 64.
  15. ^ a b c d Bracks 2012. p. 309.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Otfinoski 2010. pp. 141–142.
  17. ^ a b "History". The Black Academy of Arts and Letters. 2019. Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  18. ^ Brown 2015. p. 240.
  19. ^ a b c "Henry Lewis". African American Registry. Archived from the original on March 25, 2009.
  20. ^ a b Robert Saudek Associates (1970). The Symphony sound with Henry Lewis and the Royal Philharmonic. Learning Corp. of America. OCLC 10393845.
  21. ^ "Henry Lewis". MetOpera Database -Metropolitan Opera Archive.
  22. ^ a b c "Henry Lewis Discography". Discogs. 2019.
  23. ^ a b c d "Lewis, Henry 1932–1996". WorldCat. OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. 2019. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  24. ^ "Henry Lewis: Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works". Bach Cantatas Website. June 17, 2017. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  25. ^ Musicals!. 1997. OCLC 840330698.
  26. ^ "Lewis, Henry". American Classical Music Hall of Fame. 2019. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  27. ^ "GRAMMY Awards Winners for Best Classical Vocal Performance". Recording Academy Grammy Awards. Recording Academy. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  28. ^ Parsons 1990. p. 167.
  29. ^ "Ridder University Honorary Degree Recipients 1969 Henry Lewis". Rider University. Rider University. 2019. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  30. ^ "St. Peter's University Honorary degree recipients: 1972 Henry Lewis and Mrs. Marilyn Horne Lewis". St. Peter's University. St.Peter's University. 2019. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  31. ^ "Rutgers Office of the Secretary of the University". Rutger's University. Rutger's University. 2019. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  32. ^ Horne and Scovell 2004. p. 98.
  33. ^ Horne and Scovell 2004. p. 168.