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File:Henry Lee Higginson by John Singer Sargent, 1903.jpg

Henry Lee Higginson, portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1903, original hangs at Barker Center, Harvard U. and a copy by Sargent’s students hangs in Symphony Hall, Boston

Henry Lee Higginson (November 18, 1834 - November 14, 1919) was a noted American businessman and philanthropist. He is best known as the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Family and Early Life[]

Higginson was born in New York City, the second child of George and Mary (Cabot Lee) Higginson,[1] and a distant cousin of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. When he was four years old his family moved to Boston. George jointly founded a brokerage as a junior partner, was extremely patriotic, and never owned a house or a horse of his own until within a few years of his death. Henry’s mother died of tuberculosis, from which she suffered for some time, when Henry was 15. Henry graduated from Boston Latin School in 1851, only after withdrawing twice due to eye fatigue problems. He began studies at Harvard College, but withdrew after 4 months when he again experienced eye fatigue and he was sent to Europe. Upon returning to Boston in March 1855, Henry's father secured a position for him in the office of Messrs. Samuel and Edward Austin, India merchants, a small shipping counting house on India Wharf where he worked as the sole company clerk and bookkeeper.

Henry Lee Higginson entered the Union Army on May 11, 1861, as second lieutenant of Company D in Colonel George H. Gordon's 2nd Massachusetts Regiment. In the First Battle of Bull Run, his regiment was ordered to hold the nearby town of Harpers Ferry. Higginson was commissioned major in the cavalry on March 26, 1862. On June 17, 1863, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry engaged the soldiers of General J.E.B. Stuart and General Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry at the Battle of Aldie. During this battle, Higginson crossed sabers with one of the enemy and was knocked out of his saddle with three saber cuts and two pistol wounds. As his wounds slowly healed in Boston, he married Ida Agassiz, daughter of Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, on December 5, 1863.[citation needed] Though he retired from the militay with the title of "Colonel", he was commonly addressed as "Major" for the rest of his life to avoid confusion with an older cousin known as Col. Higginson.[2]


After the war, he worked as an agent for the Buckeye Oil Company in Ohio from January to July 1865, purchasing equipment and contracting laborers to work in the oil fields. In October 1865, he and friends paid $30,000 for five thousand acres (20 km²) of cotton-farming land in Georgia. This failed philanthropic[citation needed] adventure left him more than $10,000 in debt. Reluctantly at first, out of desperation, he started on January 1, 1868, as a clerk and later became a junior partner in his father’s business, Lee, Higginson & Co., which at the time was a modest brokerage. His father had been a junior partner until 1858 and worked until his death in 1889 at age 85. This brokerage and banking company eventually became very profitable. Henry Lee Higginson was eventually a senior partner.[3]

In 1913, he offered this assessment of changes in business over the course of his career: "There has been a steady improvement in the management of the Stock Exchange since I came down to the financial district. The methods in use to-day are very much better than they were many years ago. Men dealing with the Exchange are better protected." He allowed that there were still "rascals" and "a good many men who still need watching," but "not so many as there have been in years past."[4]

Boston Symphony Orchestra[]

Higginson described his plans for a symphony orchestra two years after he launched the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881:[5]

In February '81 [1881] I began to put in shape a scheme conceived twenty-five years before that date [1856], namely to give orchestral concerts of the best attainable character and quality at a price which should admit any one and everyone likely to care for such things - my hope was to draw in by degrees a larger and less-educated class of society - I had meant to engage an orchestra and a conductor to be at my beck and call because this only could I ask and get practice sufficient in amount and quality to reach the playing of the great German orchestras.

On March 30, 1881, Higginson published in Boston newspapers his plan for a "Boston Symphony Orchestra" that would perform as a "full and permanent orchestra, offering the best music at low prices, such as may be found in all the large European cities."[6] He advised his first music director, George Henschel, to hire only local musicians for the first year so as to avoid creating bad blood in local musical circles.[7] For the first season's series of 20 concerts, prices were set at $10 or $5 for the whole series. Single ticket prices were set at 75 and 25 cents. For the weekly afternoon public rehearsal, seats were unreserved and all priced at 25 cents.[8] The concert venue was the Boston Music Hall, and the orchestra would travel locally, offering concerts in such cities as Providence, Portland, and Worcester, as well as several in Cambridge at Harvard University's Sanders Theater.[9] Soon, to address concerns about the availability of tickets, 505 tickets for the afternoon rehearsal concerts were sold for 25 cents to those who joined the queue outside the hall in advance of the performance.[10] Tours to more distant cities followed, starting with Philadelphia and then New York.[11] Casual summer concerts began in 1885.[12]

"The scheme, half-baked, no doubt, was simply this: to give concerts of good music, very well performed, in such style as we had all heard for years in Europe; to make fair prices for the tickets and then open wide the doors."

-Henry Lee Higginson
May 23, 1889[13]

For many years, the organization accepted support from no one other than Higginson, who made up the annual deficit himself.[14] The annual deficit he had to make up never exceeded $52,000.[15] From the very beginning through at least the first 30 years of the BSO, through Julius Epstein, a Jewish friend in Vienna, Higginson had access to a continuous stream of the best conductors in the world, all European and German-speaking.[16] In 1906, he sent instructions to those hiring on his behalf that the person they choose should understand that Higginson cared neither for modern music nor "the extreme modern style of conducting." He elaborated his tastes in another letter:[17]

If you see Walter or Mengelberg, you will have to say to them . . . that I do know something about music, and that I have very distinct ideas as to how music should be played; that I shall not meddle with modern music, but that I shall certainly ask them to play the classics as they were played. I was brought up in the Vienna school (as you know) and there were plenty of men living then who had heard Beethoven conduct, as well as Mendelssohn, and knew how he wished his music given. I have known Brahms myself and heard his music. You know well enough what I wish, and I shall not interfere unduly with any of these men, but I don't want crazy work (such as sometimes even Nikisch gave us, and Paur gave us too often), and perhaps you had better tell them that I hate noise.

As sole administrator of the BSO during its early years, Higginson ensured the success of his new organization by tightly controlling the professional musicians. In 1882, he forged a new contract requiring his musicians to make themselves available from Wednesday to Saturday during the season and on those days to "neither play in any other orchestra nor under any other conductor...except if wanted in your leisure hours by the Handel and Haydn Society," a collegial gesture to a much older organization.[18] After the fourth season, he authorized the BSO's conductor Wilhelm Gericke to recruit twenty musicians while summering in Europe to replace some who were "old and overworked."[19]

For example, Higginson aggregated control by "threatening to break any strike with the importation of European players." Furthermore, over time he dropped musicians with ties to Boston and imported men from Europe of "high technical accomplishment, upon whose loyalty he could count."[20]

During World War I, Higginson and the BSO's music director Karl Muck were the focus of public controversy when the orchestra failed to add the Star-Spangled Banner to its concerts as other orchestras did. Muck's ties to the German Kaiser made for exaggerated press coverage, but Higginson was the particular focus of criticism. The New York Times called him "obstinate" for his refusal to allow public sentiment to affect programming.[21] The orchestra's publicity agent, writing years later, blamed Muck's eventual internment as an enemy alien on the "short-sighted stubbornness" of Higginson and the orchestra's manager Charles A. Ellis on the anthem issue.[22]

In February 1918, with his finances so depleted by the war that he could no longer finance the orchestra's deficits alone, and anticipating the departure of Dr. Muck, which came with his arrest in March, Higginson determined to hand the management of the orchestra over to a new institutional structure. The announcement of a board of trustees to manage an incorporated Boston Symphony Orchestra came on April 27, 1918.[23]

Other activities[]

In 1882, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University and served as the first president of the new Harvard Club of Boston during a period when he helped raise a lot of money to send needy students to Harvard. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. from Yale University in 1901. He served as president of the Boston Music Hall and as a trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1892-1919. He was also the president of the Tavern Club from more than 20 years, a "literary social club."[24]

On June 5, 1890, Higginson presented Harvard College a gift of 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land, which he called Soldiers Field, given in honor of his friends who died in the Civil War: James Savage, Jr., Charles Russell Lowell, Edward Barry Dalton, Stephen George Perkins, James Jackson Lowell, and Robert Gould Shaw. On June 10 of that year, at the dedication of Soldiers Field, he said:[25]

One of these friends, Charles Lowell, dead, and yet alive to me as you are, wrote me just before his last battle:-- "Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you'll find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. Don't seek office; but don't 'disremember' that the useful citizen holds his time, his trouble, his money, and his life always ready at the hint of his country. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero; but we are not going to have a country very long unless such heroism is developed. There! what a stale sermon I'm preaching! But, being a soldier, it does seem to me that I should like nothing so well as being a useful citizen." This was his last charge to me, and in a month he was in his grave. I have tried to live up to it, and I ask you to take his words to heart and to be moved and guided by them.

His devotion to education was both enthusiastic and patrician. Once, when advising a cousin to make a large contribution to Harvard he wrote:[26]

How else are we to save our country if not by education in all ways and on all sides? What can we do so useful to the human race in every aspect? It is wasting your time to read such platitudes.
Democracy has got fast hold of the world and will rule. Let us see that she does it more wisely and more humanly than the kings and nobles have done! Our chance is now–before the country is full and the struggle for bread becomes intense and bitter.
Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from mobs!

Sometime before 1913, he lent his name as an officer to the efforts of the Immigration Restriction League, which campaigned on behalf of literacy tests to limit immigration. Their avoidance of more straightforward racial categories and quotas only masked their fundamental bias against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.[27]

Other gifts to Harvard included $150,000 contributed in 1899 for the construction of the Harvard Union, a "house of fellowship" for all students of Harvard and Radcliffe, where they could dine, study, meet, and listen to lectures. A few years later, he raised $10,000 to defray the costs of tuition and living expenses for students from China, a program somewhat at odds with America's exclusion of Chinese immigrants at the time.[28]

Higginson was very active in promoting quality education to citizens from all walks of life. In 1891, Higginson established the Morristown School for young men, now the Morristown-Beard School, declining to be named as the school's founder. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Middlesex School, and the school's Higginson House dormitory is named for him.

He was generally impatient with politicians. He objected to Theodore Roosevelt's attacks on big business. He wrote him: "Cease all harsh words about corporations and capitalists." He did not hesitate to provide President Wilson with unsolicited advice on his conduct of World War I.[3]

On January 25, 1915, Higginson was a participant in the first transcontinental telephone call along with Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Vail and Woodrow Wilson. The telephone Higginson used is now located at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity[29]

In 1916, he accepted election to honorary membership in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity.[30]

He died in 1919 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts following funeral services that were later described as "gala obsequies."[31] One cousin's tribute described him: "He always seemed to me like the old knight of the castle–a part he played in some theatricals–giving sympathetic, spirited advice and inspiration of high example to the apprentice squires."[32]


I always like the severe in architecture, music, men and women, books.  – Higginson to architect Charles Follen McKim[33]

Any well-trained businessman is wiser than the Congress and the Executive.[3]

See also[]

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  • Karl Muck, conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra

Notes and Citations[]

  1. Perry, Bliss, Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921)
  2. Amory, 56
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Amory, 313
  4. New York Times: "Business Ethics Improving," March 3, 1913, accessed January 24, 2010
  5. H.L. Higginson, September 20, 1882, Letter to Sir George Grove describing the founding of the BSO for the 1883 printing of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
  6. Howe, Orchestra, 24
  7. Howe, Orchestra, 23
  8. Howe, Orchestra, 25
  9. Howe, Orchestra, 27-8, 50
  10. Howe, Orchestra, 44-5, 53
  11. Howe, Orchestra, 66
  12. Howe, Orchestra, 81
  13. Howe, Orchestra, 84
  14. Amory, 117
  15. Howe, Orchestra, 61
  16. Howe, Orchestra, 60-61
  17. New York Times: "Finding a New Music Director the Old-Fashioned Way," October 8, 2000, accessed February 8, 2010
  18. Howe, Orchestra, 39
  19. Howe, Orchestra, 64, 71
  20. DiMaggio,
  21. New York Times: "Karl Muck," March 5, 1940, January 20, 2010
  22. New York Times: William E. Walter, "Dr. Muck and the First War," March 10, 1940, accessed January 20, 2010. See also: New York Times: "Majopr Higginson Defends Dr. Muck," March 14, 1918, accessed December 11, 2010; New York Times: "Dr. Muck Resigns, Then Plays Anthem," November 3, 1917, accessed January 11, 2010
  23. M.A. DeWolfe Howe, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1881-1931 (Boston, 1931), 137-9; New York Times: "Maj. Higginson out of Boston Symphony," April 28, 1918, accessed January 12, 2010
  24. Sinfonia: John Mongiovi, "Sinfonia and the Union of Spiritual and Musical Idealism", accessed January 17, 2010; Amory, 312
  25. Perry, pp. 233, 536
  26. Amory, 173. Quoted also in part: Richard Norton Smith, The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 50-1
  27. Barbara Miller Solomon, Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 123 and ch. 6 passim
  28. Marsha Graham Synnott, The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), 55. The students were not immigrants to the United States, but thought to be the future leaders of China.
  29. American Museum of Radio and Electricity
  30. Sinfonia: The Mystic Cat (1916), 20
  31. Amory, 254
  32. Amory, 312
  33. New York Times: Joseph Horowitz, "A Plain Home with a Sense of Place," October 8, 2000, accessed January 11, 2010


  • Cleveland Amory, The Proper Bosonians (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1947)
  • Paul DiMaggio, "Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America" in Media, Culture and Society, 1982
  • Henry Lee Higginson, Four Addresses: The Soldiers' Field, the Harvard Union I, the Harvard Union II, Robert Gould Shaw (Boston: D.B. Updike, 1902)
  • Steven Ledbetter, "Higginson and Chadwick: Non-Brahmins in Boston" by Steven Ledbetter" in American Music Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), 51-63
  • M.A. De Wolfe Howe, A Great Private Citizen: Henry Lee Higginson (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920)
  • M.A. De Wolfe Howe, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1881-1931 (Boston, 1931; NY, 1978)
  • Bliss Perry, ed., Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921)
  • Richard Poate Stebbins, The Making of Symphony Hall Boston: A History with Documents Including Correspondence of Henry Lee Higginson... (Boston: Boston Symphony Orchestra, 2000)
  • Oswald Garrison Villard, Prophets True and False (New York: Knopf, 1928)

External links[]