Today In Black History: June 1
Today In Black History: June 1

Today In Black History: June 1


Henry Lewis, who broke racial barriers in the music world as the first black conductor and music director of a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and as the first black to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 63.

The cause was a heart attack, his former wife, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, said.

Though suffering from lung cancer in recent years, he continued to serve as music director of the Opera-Music Theater Institute of New Jersey and of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, and was a frequent guest conductor for opera companies and symphony orchestras in Europe and America.

Musically brilliant and a commanding figure with the baton, Mr. Lewis since the 1960's had conducted nearly every major American orchestra -- the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic -- as well as orchestras and opera companies in Milan, London, Paris, Tokyo, Copenhagen and dozens of other music capitals.

In a 47-year career filled with landmark events, Mr. Lewis, whom some critics likened to Jackie Robinson, became the first black instrumentalist with a major American orchestra as a youth in 1948, the first black to conduct a world-class orchestra, in 1960; the first black to become music director of a major orchestra, in 1968, and the first black to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1972.

Mr. Lewis was only 16 when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Twelve years later, he made his conducting debut with that orchestra. He then founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and was engaged as a guest conductor by top orchestras across the country.

On the strength of his rapidly growing reputation, Mr. Lewis was selected in 1968, over 160 other candidates and at the musically young age of 36, to become the conductor and music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It was a landmark event in music, for few blacks had even made it into the orchestra pit, let alone onto the podium. It made national headlines.

Over the next eight years, Mr. Lewis built the orchestra from what critics called an ensemble of "avocational" musicians with a $75,000 budget and a season of 22 concerts, into a first-class orchestra with a $1.5 million budget, a 100-concert season and a glow of prestige that took it to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington and other famed halls.

Based in Newark, a blighted city more concerned with survival than with symphonies, Mr. Lewis and his orchestra began the climb by acquiring 92 top-flight professional musicians, recruiting big-name soloists, including Misha Dichter and Itzhak Perlman, and vastly expanding the company's repertory, schedule and outreach into New Jersey's ghettos as well as middle-class communities.

While continuing to perform at Symphony Hall in Newark, often selling seats for $1, the orchestra undertook a grueling travel schedule to most of New Jersey's large communities, playing in town halls, high school gymnasiums, parks and other acoustically difficult arenas.

Mr. Lewis saw it as his goal to take good music to the doorstep of ordinary people, and in his first season he was not above drawing on the services of his wife to pull in the audiences. "I'll admit it," he said at the time. "We hid behind Marilyn's skirts that first season."

He also took the orchestra into ghettos and working-class neighborhoods for outdoor concerts. Many who attended were hearing classical music for the first time, and Mr. Lewis readily acknowledged that he changed the repertory to suit the audience.

"You can't play down to them," Mr. 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."

Mr. Lewis was sometimes criticized for his relaxed style during a concert: he often talked to the audience, for example. "I'm always talking, exploring, consciously trying to break down the barrier between us," he explained. "I tell the people that if they want to break in with applause after an exciting movement, that's fine."

Mr. Lewis was also criticized by some blacks who said that symphonies and the repertories of Western European composers were not what impoverished black communities needed. Some more militant blacks were harsher, charging that he was trying to purvey "white" music to black people.

Mr. Lewis did not apologize for his music, though he noted that not everyone had the background or inclination to appreciate it. He said, however, that he was trying to fulfill the difficult, sometimes conflicting goals of building an internationally respected orchestra while taking music to the people.

uring his colorful, often tumultuous tenure with the New Jersey Symphony, acclaim followed almost everywhere, and Mr. Lewis took on other high-profile appearances as a guest conductor.

In 1972, 17 years after the contralto Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera House, Mr. Lewis celebrated his 40th birthday on the podium there, conducting a performance of "La Boheme." 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."

While the New Jersey orchestra's reputation and his career as a conductor were soaring, an economic slump was hurting many of the nation's best musical ensembles, and Mr. Lewis's relationship with his members grew increasingly strained as he pressed hard to maintain a grueling schedule and high-level performances.

When Mr. Lewis resigned in 1976 after eight years as the symphony's leader, critics and insiders alike called it a case of irreconcilable differences. Mr. Lewis said he had imposed stern but reasonable demands, but members called him tyrannical. In a three-week strike that preceded his resignation, the orchestra's negotiating committee actually sought a contract clause stipulating that Mr. Lewis refrain from frowning at rehearsals and performances.

After leaving Newark, Mr. Lewis for many years was a guest conductor for major orchestras and opera companies in the United States and Europe. He conducted the Metropolitan Opera tour of Japan in 1975. In 1991, he was music director for the London production of "Carmen Jones." He also frequently conducted for recordings.

Henry Jay Lewis was born on Oct. 16, 1932, in Los Angeles, the only child of Henry J. Lewis, an automobile dealer, and Mary Josephine Lewis, a registered nurse. His musical gifts were recognized early. His mother put him at the piano when he was 5, and in parochial and later public schools he played with amateur orchestras.

But his father frowned on the prospect of his career in music, Mr. Lewis once recalled. "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."

In junior high school, he leaped at a teacher's offer of lessons on the double bass. "Double-bass players were rare," Mr. Lewis said. "I decided to master it." He also studied other instruments and voice. His talent at the double bass won him a scholarship to the University of Southern California.

He did not graduate -- he took more than enough credits, but not in the right concentrations -- but made up for it with honorary degrees later in life. At 16, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming not only the first black instrumentalist in a major American orchestra, but also the youngest.

He remained with the orchestra until 1954, when he was drafted into the Army. He then became conductor of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart, Germany, where he remained until his discharge in 1957. He then returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and became assistant conductor under Zubin Mehta.

In 1960, after a long friendship, Mr. Lewis married Ms. Horne, by then a well-known opera star. In her autobiography, "Marilyn Horne: My Life," (Atheneum, 1983), Ms. Horne wrote that she received many warnings from 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!' "

The couple, who had a daughter, Angela, often appeared in musical performances together, and were the subject of magazine articles that portrayed them as happy in their music and their marriage. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979, but they remained close friends and colleagues, Ms. Horne said. Their daughter, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., survives.

"Henry Lewis was my prophet and my teacher and my right hand," Ms. 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."

In a 1970 Carnegie Hall appearance by the New Jersey Symphony, Mr. Lewis conducted and Ms. Horne sang an aria from Rossini's "Siege of Corinth." In a review for The Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote: "There was an animal yell from the audience, then pandemonium, followed by a rising ovation. For almost five minutes, nothing could proceed.


Article By: Robert McFadden, 1996

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