Remembering Henry Lewis; first Black conductor of a major symphony orchestra

Mohammed Awal February 17, 2020
Image credit: CW39 Houston

Henry Lewis’ love and passion for music and symphony was indescribable.

Born on October 16, 1932, in Los Angeles to automobile dealer Henry J. Lewis and nurse Mary Josephine, Lewis, who started playing at the age of five joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Lewis also learned to play the double bass, and that earned him a scholarship to attend the University of Southern California.

According to the African American Registry, Lewis conducted the Seventh Army Symphony in Germany and the Netherlands in 1955.

After his 1960 marriage with accomplished white opera singer Marilyn Horne, the following year Lewis was appointed an assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

Lewis and Horne in 1965 had a daughter and in 1974 divorced.  In her autobiography, “Marilyn Horne: My Life,” (Atheneum, 1983), Horne wrote she was warned by friends and relatives about problems she would face as the white wife of a black man, including one from her mother: ‘What do you want to marry him for?’ Mother said shortly. ‘Why can’t you just live with him? Be his mistress, for God’s sake, not his wife!’ “

According to Black Past, Lewis became the youngest and first black instrumentalist in a major American orchestra when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948 at age 16.

Lewis broke racial barriers in the American field of conducting, becoming the first African American to serve as a conductor and musical director of a major American orchestra–the New Jersey Symphony in 1968, and the first African American to conduct the Metropolitan Opera, in 1972.

Lewis spent eight years as conductor and musical director, building the Newark-based New Jersey Symphony Orchestra into a first-class orchestra with a 100-concert season, over $1 million budget, and appearances at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center among others, according to Black Past.

In 1989, Lewis became the principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony — a Dutch radio orchestra.

According to a 1996 publication by the New York Times, Lewis also took orchestra into ghettos and working-class neighborhoods for outdoor concerts.

“You can’t play down to them,” Lewis said. “But you can’t give them an all-Brahms program at first. It’s a question of building an audience. I’m not a believer in the old-fashioned attitude of a conductor and orchestra playing for themselves and letting the audience listen as a kind of favor. We do everything possible to make people feel they want to come.”

In a review for The New York Times, Donal Henahan wrote: “Mr. Lewis proved after a rather stiff beginning that the Puccini style of broad lyricism was one he understood well and could command technically. Credit the Met with good sense in engaging him, and credit Mr. Lewis with a highly satisfactory debut.”

Lewis’ father did not support his career in music. “He wanted me to become what he called ‘a respectable professional man,’ not a musician,” he said. “There were no Negroes in classical music then.”

On Jan. 26, 1996, Lewis died of a heart attack at the age of 63.

“I’m feeling the loss so personally,” Horne said of the death of Lewis. “The music world has lost somebody very special.”

“Henry Lewis was my prophet and my teacher and my right hand,” Horne wrote in her book. “I certainly would have had a career without Henry, but it was he who really led me into the paths of bel canto. He labored and sweated and did everything he could to teach me the style.”

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: February 17, 2020


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