Henschel was born at Breslau, in Silesia, now part of Poland, then part of Germany, of Polish-Jewish parentage, and educated as a pianist, making his first public appearance in Berlin in 1862. He subsequently took up singing, initially and briefly as a basso profundo but developing a fine baritone voice. In 1868, he sang the part of Hans Sachs in a concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Munich. With one minor and unplanned exception, he never sang on stage, confining himself to concert appearances.
He was a close friend of Johannes Brahms, whom he met in May 1874 at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Cologne, where Henschel sang the role of Harapha in Handel's oratorio Samson. The friendship lasted until Brahms's death; Henschel reports in his memoirs that he arrived in Vienna only hours too late to see Brahms before his passing, and that their last meeting had been at a restaurant in Leipzig in 1896, where they were joined by Edvard Grieg and Arthur Nikisch.
In 1877, Henschel began a successful career in England, singing at the principal concerts and, in 1881, he married the American soprano, Lilian June Bailey (1860-1901), who was associated with him in a number of vocal recitals throughout the United States and nearly all Europe until 1884. Henschel's very highly developed sense of interpretation and style made him an ideal concert singer, while he was no less distinguished as accompanist. In fact he sometimes combined both functions; he can be heard on records made as late as 1928 for the Columbia Graphophone Company, singing Lieder by Schubert and Schumann to his own accompaniment.
Henschel was also a prominent conductor, in America and England. He became the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 (he used the name "Georg Henschel"); on his appointment, he sent his ideas for an innovative seating chart to Brahms, who replied and commented in an approving letter of mid-November 1881. In 1886, he started a series known as the London Symphony Concerts (no connection with the later London Symphony Orchestra), and in 1893 became the conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
His compositions include instrumental works, a fine Stabat Mater (Birmingham Festival, 1894), an opera, Nubia (Dresden, 1899), and a Requiem (Boston, 1903). In 1907 he published a collection of his journals and correspondence in Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms and in 1918 Musings and Memories of a Musician. A Mass in eight parts a cappella was first sung in 1916.
He was knighted in 1914 and at a farewell concert that year, was presented with a lute engraved with "A token of gratitude for forty years' song". He taught at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, where he met his second wife, Amy Louis, who was one of his students.
His daughter, Georgina "Georgie" Henschel, was a noted breeder of Highland ponies and Norwegian Fjord ponies, and author of several equestrian books. Henschel died in Aviemore, Scotland, where he maintained his holiday-home Alltnacriche with his wife. He is buried in the churchyard overlooking Loch Alvie, nearby.
- The only time he ever sang on stage was at the second performance of his opera Nubia in Dresden in December 1899, replacing one of the singers who had become ill.
- Henschel, George (1907). Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms. Richard G. Badger. ISBN 0-404-12963-3.
- "HENSCHEL, George". Who's Who. 59: 824. 1907.
- Avins, Styra (1997). Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters. Oxford University Press. pp. 587–588. ISBN 0-19-816234-0.
- Henschel, George (1907). Personal recollections of Johannes Brahms. Boston: R.G. Badger. OCLC 1328613.
- Henschel, George (1919). Musings and Memories of a Musician. New York: Macmillan.
- "The Realm of Music". The Independent. 6 July 1914. Retrieved August 1, 2012.
- "John Singer Sargent's George Henschel". John Singer Sargent Gallery. Archived from the original on 22 February 2007. Retrieved 21 May 2007.
- Dictionary of National Biography
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Henschel, George". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.