George Henschel

Tchaikovsky Research
George Henschel (1850-1934), painted in 1879 by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912)

German-born British conductor, composer, pianist and baritone (b. 18 February 1850 in Breslau, Prussia; d. 10 September 1934 in Aviemore, Scotland), born Isador Georg Henschel.


Henschel was educated as a pianist, making his first public appearance in Berlin in 1862. He subsequently, however, took up singing, having developed a fine baritone voice; and in 1868 he sang the part of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger at Munich. In 1877, he began a successful career in England, singing at the principal concerts; and in 1881 he married the American soprano, Lilian Bailey (1860–1901), who was associated with him in a number of vocal recitals. He was also prominent as a conductor, starting the London Symphony Concerts in 1886, and both in Britain and America, becoming the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881.

In 1890 he took British citizenship, and was knighted in 1914. He was the founder and principal conductor (1893–95) of the Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra), and retained close links with Scotland even when teaching in New York. He died at Aviemore, near Inverness, in 1934, and is buried in the local churchyard.

Tchaikovsky and Henschel

Henschel's first visit to Russia in 1875 — he had been invited by Karl Davydov to sing in a performance of Handel's Messiah in Saint Petersburg — also took him to Moscow, and, as he later recalled in his autobiography:

It was in Moscow that I first met Tschaikovsky, a most amiable, kind, gentle, modest man, with just that touch of melancholy in his composition which to me seems to be a characteristic of the Russian. I spent a week in Moscow, singing, among other things, in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in Russian, a language which in my opinion, as regards melodiousness, comes immediately after the Italian. Nicolai Rubinstein conducted an excellent performance, and afterwards he, Tschaikovsky and I had supper at the famous restaurant known as the 'Érémitage'. There we sat until the small hours of the morning, talking mostly about music. Brahms' German Requiem had only just been published, and, much to my astonishment and distress, both Rubinstein and Tschaikovsky expressed in very strong terms their resentment of the title 'German Requiem', maintaining that it implied a certain arrogance on the part of the composer as hinting at the superiority of German over other music. I argued that the word 'Requiem' as applied to a work of music, generally meant a setting of the old accepted Latin words of the Mass for the Dead. Brahms in calling his work 'A German Requiem' merely wanted to make it clear, already on the title-page, that his work was not a Mass, but set to German words taken from different parts of the Bible; that, if those words were translated into, say, Swedish or French or Russian, it would become a Swedish, French or Russian Requiem; that nothing could have been further from Brahms' intention than a slight on the music of other nations. But I am afraid when we parted early in the morning the two were still far from convinced [1]

As part of the London Symphony Concerts, Henschel would go on to conduct the first performances in England of the Slavonic March (on 13 December 1887) and the festival overture The Year 1812 (on 15 January 1889). He also conducted the first American performance of the former work [2].

When Tchaikovsky came to England in June 1893 to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, he visited the Henschel family at their house in London before travelling on to Cambridge. Henschel also went there at the same time because he had been engaged to sing the title-role in the prologue to Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele, which was performed at the concert in the Cambridge Guildhall on 31 May/12 June 1893 — the programme featured works by all the composers due to receive honorary doctorates the following day, including Francesca da Rimini, conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. It is recorded that Henschel sat in front of Tchaikovsky at table during the Jubilee Dinner held at King's College later that evening [3]. As Gerald Norris has suggested, it is possible that during this last visit to London Tchaikovsky also acquainted himself with the score of the incidental music which Henschel had written for Herbert Beerbohm Tree's acclaimed production of Hamlet in 1892 (the score was published in September of the same year). For two months later, when he received a request from the Polish conductor Michał Hertz to use his incidental music to Hamlet in a production of Shakespeare's tragedy at the Warsaw Theatre, Tchaikovsky wrote back advising him to use instead "the excellent music for Hamlet by George Henschel" [4].

Many years later, Henschel would write in his memoirs:

Tschaikovsky, whom I had the pleasure of seeing nearly every day during his short stay in London, seemed to me, though then on the uppermost rung of the ladder of fame, even more inclined to intervals of melancholy than when I had last met him; indeed, one afternoon, during a talk about the olden days in Petrograd and Moscow, and the many friends there who were no more, he suddenly got very depressed and, wondering what this world with all its life and strife was made for, expressed his own readiness at any moment to quit it. To my gratification, I succeeded in dispelling the clouds that had gathered over his mental vision, and during the rest of the afternoon as well as the dinner in the evening he appeared in the best of spirits. That was the last time I saw him, and less than five months later a very strange thing happened. What to call it I know not:

The sketch programmes of the series of concerts by the Scottish Orchestra, which, under my directorship, were to commence in November, had as usual been printed and published several months before the first concert, which took place in Edinburgh on November 6th 1893, and on the programme there figured an Elegy for strings by Tschaikovsky, written in memory of a departed friend [5]. [I had selected it as a fine example of the composer's art as being deeply emotional and impressive, even on so limited a scale and without the colouristic wealth of the full modern orchestra.] The little work stood first in the second part of the programme. After the usual interval between the parts the members of the orchestra had reassembled on the platform, ready for me. As I made my way through them towards the conductor's desk, one of the gentlemen stopped me for a moment and, handing me the Evening News, pointed to the heading of a telegram from Petrograd: Tschaikovsky had died that morning!..." [6]

In the years following Tchaikovsky's death, Henschel conducted the Symphony No. 6 a number of times in London.

Helen Henschel (1882–1973), the daughter of George and Lilian Henschel, also became a professional singer. In her biography of her father, she looked back to her meetings with Tchaikovsky as a child when he visited her family's house in London in June 1893:

Another frequent visitor to our house about this time was Tschaikovsky, who had come to England to receive an honorary degree at Cambridge. My father had met him years earlier in Moscow, and described him then (1875) as 'a most amiable, kind, gentle, modest man, with just that touch of melancholy in his composition which seems to be a characteristic of the Russian'.

The melancholy was naturally enough not evident to me as a small child, but the gentleness and kindness were. Nobody could have been more charming than he was. One of my life's minor tragedies is that he wrote me a long letter when he left London, that the wind blew it off the table into the waste-paper basket, and that the house-maid lit my fire with it. I have always felt a particular sympathy for Carlyle since! [7] But I do possess a personal remembrance of Tschaikovsky — the photograph he gave to my mother, inscribed: 'A Madame L. B. Henschel, de la part de son fervent admirateur, P. Tschaikovsky'" [8].

It was also during one of these visits that Tchaikovsky accompanied Henschel at the piano as the latter sang None But the Lonely Heart (No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6) [9].

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

2 letters from Tchaikovsky to George Henschel have survived, dating from 1888 and 1893, of which those highlighted in bold have been translated into English on this website:


External Links

Notes and References

  1. Musings and memories of a musician (1918), p. 60–61.
  2. See Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee, and Tchaikovsky (1980), p. 365.
  3. See Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee, and Tchaikovsky (1980), p. 401.
  4. Letter 5020 to Michał Hertz, 23 August/4 September 1893. See also Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee, and Tchaikovsky (1980), p. 401–402.
  5. The actor Ivan Samarin.
  6. Musings and memories of a musician (1918), p. 365–366. Quoted partly in Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 187–188.
  7. The manuscript of the first volume of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution. A History was accidentally burnt by John Stuart Mill's house-maid in 1835. It was the only existing copy, and it took Carlyle over a year to write the volume afresh.
  8. When soft voices die. A musical biography (1949), p. 72–73. Quoted in Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 97–98.
  9. See Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee, and Tchaikovsky (1980), p. 366.