Home Arts and Leisure Henry Lee Higginson: The Soldier Who Created the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Henry Lee Higginson: The Soldier Who Created the Boston Symphony Orchestra

An idealistic patriot, a great private citizen

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On April 6, 1931, the Boston Symphony Orchestra held a special concert in honor of Major Henry Lee Higginson. As a newspaper at the time noted:

The ghost of an old man with a sabre scar across his cheek hovered over Boston’s Symphony last week. In his honor Conductor Sergei Koussevitsky had prepared a six-day Bach Festival…Conductor Koussevitsky was keyed to a pitch where no amount of effort was too much to spend in memory of Major Henry Lee Higginson, who 50 years ago founded the Boston Orchestra and for nearly 40 years supported it…On the second day of the festival the old Major’s bust was taken out of the Symphony Hall lobby, set on stage in the centre of a floral display. Instead of music, speeches were the meat of the afternoon, with the Major’s widow, a little old lady of 93, one of the guests on stage…

If the spirit of Major Henry Lee Higginson was hovering over the music hall that week, it must have been immensely proud to see his “child” now full grown and thriving.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.

Henry Lee Higginson

Unless you are a serious Harvard University historian, or an equally serious aficionado of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the name Henry Lee Higginson probably means nothing to you. Yet he lived a full, courageous, and fruitful life that continues to enrich the lives of many who know nothing of him.

Henry Lee Higginson was born on Nov. 16, 1834 in New York City to George and Mary Cabot Lee Higginson. He had three brothers and one sister. When he was four years old, his family moved to Boston. There his father co-founded the investment bank of Lee, Higginson & Co.  At age 15, Henry lost his mother to tuberculosis, a common deadly illness in that age. Henry himself was plagued by ill health for most of his life, and, as a youth, suffered eye fatigue. In 1851 he finally graduated from Boston Latin School after withdrawing twice due to his eye problems.

Henry Lee Higginson in 1850.

A good student, nonetheless, he entered Harvard University. But he lasted only four months before his eye problems began again, forcing him to go to Europe for relief. Returning to Boston in March 1855, he went to work for a firm of India merchants as a clerk and bookkeeper rather than return to school.

Higginson Goes To War

When the Civil War began in 1861, Henry immediately joined in May. He had a commission as a second lieutenant with Company D, 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Clearly the medical exams for entrance, such as they were, could overlook poor eyesight. The regiment mustered at Camp Andrew in West Roxbury, Mass., on May 25, 1861, and repositioned to Hagerstown, Md., in July. It then spent its time on various guard and picket assignments around the upper Potomac River and later in Frederick, Md. At least one history claims that Henry Lee Higginson fought with the regiment at 1st Bull Run (1st Manassas) but this is incorrect. The regiment was nowhere near Manassas during the July 21, 1861 battle. On 31 October 1861, Henry resigned his commission as a lieutenant for a commission as captain, in Company A, 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

While the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry organized itself at Camp Brigham in Readville, Mass. (the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston), Henry was absent due to a bout with typhoid fever. He finally joined Company A in time for its transfer to Annapolis, Md., on Christmas Day 1861. On March 26, 1862, Captain Higginson won promotion to major. After spending time in South Carolina, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry moved north into Virginia, joining Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, in September 1862.

Wounded in Battle

Later in September 1862, the regiment fought at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland. Shortly thereafter, it fought at the Battle of Antietam, one of the deadliest battles in the Civil War. The regiment then moved back into Virginia actively patrolling, before becoming engaged again at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. In the late winter and spring of 1863, Henry Higginson fought with the regiment in a series of small affairs before being engaged in the Chancellorsville Campaign, taking part in Stoneham’s Raid.

On June 9, 1863, Henry Higginson fought with the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle ever fought on American soil. The battle was a turning point for Union cavalry, which showed it could fight on equal footing with the heretofore dominant Confederate cavalry.

Drawing of a cavalry charge during eh Battle of Brandy Station

Higginson was heavily involved in multiple cavalry actions, which, by definition, were often close and personal affairs of combat. But his luck was about to run out. On June 17, 1863, the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry fought at the Battle of Aldie. The battle was strictly a cavalry affair, which meant the fighting was mostly hand-to-hand on horses. A major by this time, Henry received three saber cuts and two pistol wounds, and he was un-horsed. It was his last major battle. After a brief hospitalization at Alexandria, Va., he went home on a 60-day furlough. During this time a bullet wound in his back became abscessed, setting him back further. He went on recruiting duty for the winter of 1863/64 and didn’t return to active service until June 1864.

Back to Civilian Life

But even then, his wounds troubled him to the extent that he could not sit for long periods on a horse. He never rejoined the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. He joined Maj. Gen. Francis Barlow’s staff on July 4, 1864. Henry never again saw action, and on  Aug. 9, 1864, he resigned.  On March 13, 1865, he received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in recognition of his service. Throughout his life he was called “Major Higginson” to avoid confusion with another relative of the same name who was called “Colonel Higginson.”

The Higginson family was well represented in the Civil War. Henry’s brother James served as an officer in the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Ironically, the Confederates captured him at the Battle of Aldie on June 17,1863. Henry was seriously wounded in the same battle. While is it likely the brothers knew each other’s regiment was present during the battle, it is unlikely that they knew each other’s fate at the time. Another brother, Francis Lee Higginson , served as an officer in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (US Colored Troops-USCT). He later served with the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (USCT).

On Dec. 5, 1863, while still in Boston, Major Higginson married Ida Olympe Frederika Agassiz,  born in Germany but apparently removed to Cambridge, Mass., while still a child. The Higginsons had two children – a daughter, Cecile Pauline Higginson, born in 1870, and a son, Alexander Henry Higginson, born in 1876. Tragically, Cecile died in 1875, a loss from which Henry never fully recovered.

Henry Lee Higginson Goes to Work

Now a civilian, affairs for Major Higginson did not go smoothly at first. After a short period as an agent for the Buckeye Oil Company of Ohio, he invested $30,000 with friends in 5,000 acres in Georgia for cotton-farming. But that effort went bust, leaving him $10,000 in debt. At this point circumstances forced him to go to work as a clerk in his father’s firm of Lee, Higginson & Co. It proved to be the turning point in his fortunes. He would eventually work his way up in the firm to a junior partner and eventually a senior partner. Wealth inevitably followed his success.

Philanthropy was always in Major Higginson’s blood, so in 1881, he set about planning to create, from whole cloth, a Boston Symphony Orchestra. As he described it:

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 them open wide the doors.

The BSO at Boston Music Hall in 1891

It was a grand scheme that started everything from scratch. Needing to begin somewhere, he advertised for musicians to perform as a “full and permanent orchestra,” instructing the first music director George Herchel to only hire local musicians. That prohibition lasted only until the orchestra was established.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Ticket prices, as per his desire, were kept affordable to the average patron — $0.25 to $0.75 each. At these prices, the concerts would be available to all, but would not elicit a profit. Most years, Major Higginson made up the yearly deficit out of his own pocket. Three years after the startup, Higginson began recruiting European musicians. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that the orchestra hired its first America-born music director, James Levine.

George Henschel by John Singer Sargent

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra director was George Henschel, a close friend of Johan Brahms. Because Major Higginson was the sole supporter of the orchestra for 30 years, he was also its sole arbiter. As the de facto CEO, with no board to oppose him, his word was law. He wanted the best conductors and directors and, to his mind, that meant European. Higginson also wanted the best music and, to him, that meant the traditional, old-world music. He didn’t want “modern music,” or modern conducting methods, and he made that well-known to his staff.

His insistence on perfection and commitment from all extended to absolute control of the musicians. He threatened to put down any rebellion and replace underperforming or rebellious musicians with European replacements.  It should be kept in mind that for all of what appears to be high-handedness, Higginson did not profit in the least from the BSO. In fact, he lost money, which he poured into it over the years to keep the orchestra afloat financially. It would not be an overstatement to say that he built the BSO into a world-class orchestra through sheer force of will.

A Hint of Scandal

Most of Higginson’s maneuverings with the BSO, however, went on behind the scenes. But during World War I Higginson and his music director, Karl Muck, became involved in public controversy. They refused to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” at concerts. It didn’t help the controversy that Muck had ties to the Kaiser. It’s not clear why they refused to play the song as other orchestras were doing, but it should also be remembered that it was not the national anthem at the time. America had no national anthem, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t become the national anthem until March 3. 1931. One suspects that given Higginson’s taste for traditional music, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” set to the tune of an English song for an amateur music society, offended his sensibilities of good music.

Karl Muck

Karl Muck

The year 1918 was seminal for Higginson and the BSO. Its conductor Karl Muck was interned, without trial, as an enemy alien. He was deported at the end of the war, never to return. The BSO’s next two music directors were French. By 1918, Major Higginson was running out of money. With his ability diminished to finance the orchestra solely on his own, he turned the BSO over to a board of trustees. It was incorporated on April 27, 1918.

Through the years, Higginson’s philanthropy wasn’t confined to the BSO. While that was arguably his first love, he never forgot his affiliation with Harvard though he never graduated. He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard in 1882. Somewhat ironically, given the schools’ rivalry, in 1901 he was awarded an honorary LL.D from Yale.

More Philanthropy

In 1890, Major Higginson donated 31 acres of land to Harvard, naming it Soldier’s Field in honor of the Harvard men killed in the Civil War. Harvard Stadium now sits on that field. Nine years later, he also donated $150,000 for the creation of the Harvard Union (over $5.5 million in 2023), today a part of the Barker Center. Major Higginson was elected a Fellow of the Corporation of Harvard University in 1893.

Harvard-Yale game at the Harvard Stadium, 1905

One of his main loves throughout his life remained education, and not just Harvard. He made significant contributions to Washington & Lee University, the University of Virginia and Middlesex School, a preparatory school in Cambridge, Mass.

At least one history wrongly credits him with establishing the Morristown School, in Morristown, N.J. (now the Morristown-Beard School), a private, independent day school. He did, however, make a significant start-up contribution, most probably because it was an expansion of St. Bartholomew’s School, founded by an 1891 Harvard graduate, Rev. Frank E. Edwards.

He was a man of his time, however. In 1913, he served as an officer in the Immigration Restriction League, which advocated literacy requirements for immigrants. It was a euphemistic effort to hide the prejudice against immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most could not pass such requirements due to their lack of access to education. On the other hand, he raised $10,000 (about $320,000 in 2024) for scholarships for students from China, who were excluded from entry into the U. S. Clearly, Major Higginson was a complicated man.

Henry Lee Higginson by John Singer Sargent

Death of Henry Lee Higginson

Maj. Henry Lee Higginson died at Massachusetts General Hospital on Nov. 14, 1919, from complications after an operation. In a letter written to a friend shortly before his death, he probably best summed up his life.

The simple tale – that he tried to fill up gaps and sought to bring sunshine into the lives of his fellow men and women, that he usually kept his word, given and implied, and that he worshipped his country and had the very best and most far-seeing of friends – that is the whole story.

It is perhaps too simple an epitaph for a complicated man whose legacy far outlived, and continues to outlive, his mortal life.

Henry Lee Higginson and his brothers are the author’s 7th cousins, 4 times removed

Images: Boston Pops in Symphony Hall by Rich Moffitt via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Bso at Tanglewood By Yinglong999 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134344337.

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