Amateur and student French horn players typically purchase instruments from internationally known manufacturers like Conn-Selmer or Yamaha, but top professionals turn to an elite cadre of 20 or so highly skilled artisans across Europe and the United States. Of those, none is more highly respected than Steven Lewis, who lives and works in the Chicago area.

“His horns have a depth and complexity that a lot of other horns lack,” said Daniel Gringrich, associate principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who acquired his first Lewis horn in 2003 and has since purchased a second. “There are lots of horns that are easier to play than Lewis horns, but the trade-off in my mind is in sound quality.”

Striking out on his more than 40 years ago, Lewis has produced 373 horns to date — each with his name engraved on the bell — as well as 8,000 mutes. Working alone, he made 10 instruments a year at his peak, but at 71, the craftsman now painstakingly assembles about six instruments a year in what he kiddingly calls his “dotage.”

“His horns are like jewelry,” said David Cooper, who took over as the CSO’s principal horn in July 2019. “It’s absolutely stunning. It’s mind-blowing the amount of care he puts into every piece, every brace.”

Dale Clevenger, the CSO’s much-lauded principal horn from 1966 through 2013, acquired his Lewis horn in 1984, and soon the entire horn section played the local maker’s instruments exclusively as it still does today, providing an important dimension to the orchestra’s legendary brass sound. “None is better than Steve’s horn — none,” Clevenger said.

Now based in Evanston, Steven Lewis makes horns and other instruments that many consider the world’s best.

Cooper met Lewis in 2007, when he had just turned 23. As part of that trip to Chicago, he attended his first CSO concert and was transfixed as he listened to Clevenger on his Lewis horn in the Rosenkavalier Suite. “I’ll never forget the horn solo that Dale played,” Cooper said. “It just took my breath away. Time stopped. I was transported to another place.”

Describing sound quality can be tricky, but Gingrich said that the sound of some brass instruments seems more hollow and peripheral, whereas Lewis’ horns possess a “very solid core of sound.”

According to Clevenger, that sound quality is “absolutely uniform” across the 3½ octaves that Shostakovich demands of French horn players in his Symphony No. 5. He especially praised the instruments’ low register, which he calls the “best in the business – period.”

At the same time, Cooper said, a danger for some French horn is the sound becoming distorted with louder dynamics much as a stereo speaker can. “Steve’s horn manages to stay intact without losing the purity of sound or getting distorted even at the highest volumes,” he said.

Lewis’ interest in music began early. During the 1950s, when the California native was living with his military family in Germany for four years, he began piano lessons at age 5. After his family moved back to the United States and settled in Columbus, Ohio, he and his fellow fifth graders took a musical aptitude test. Because of his earlier piano studies, he excelled and chose to play the French horn, what he regards as the difficult of all musical instruments. “Three weeks later, it arrived via Railway Express from the Lyons Band Instrument Co. of Chicago, and it has not left my hands or my consciousness ever since,” he said via e-mail.

After studies in horn performance at Colorado State College (now the University of Northern Colorado), Lewis moved to Chicago in 1972 to study with Clevenger. He joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO’s training ensemble, that year and sometimes played as an extra with the CSO. “As a horn player,” said Gingrich, who was a fellow Civic member from 1969 to 1972, “he played with a lovely sound, and he was always really fascinated and charmed by the sound of the horn. Some people tend to be more technical, but he was very much about the sound of the horn.”

Lewis’ studio is lined with photos and mementos of musicians who revere his work. | Photo courtesy of S. Lewis

To make ends meet, Lewis got a job at Schilke Music Products (now based in Melrose Park), which was founded by Renold Schilke in 1956. During his four years there, he became an assistant to Jaroslaw “Jerry” Lechniuk, a Ukranian immigrant whom Lewis describes as an “extraordinary craftsman.” Lechniuk repaired French horns that were shipped to the shop from all over the world; during the last two years of his life began to build his own instruments — 18 of which are still extant.

After Schilke died, Lewis finished the horns Lechniuk had left unfinished — instruments that have become jokingly known as “Jerry/Lewis” horns. “Jerry told me that Steve had golden fingers,” Clevenger said. “He was just excellent at whatever he did.”

Schilke was not as pleased with the former assistant’s work as he had been with Lechniuk’s, so Lewis left to begin his own company. Four CSO brass players — Clevenger, Bud Herseth, Rudy Macchiochi and Arnold Jacobs — not only offered encouragement, they also gave him a $25,000 loan to buy equipment and other necessities. “I created the finest shop ever for the exclusive making of French horns,” Lewis said. “Having trained in machine tool technology, I knew exactly what the finest machinery and components were available, and I incorporated them into this dream environment.” He opened S.W. Lewis Orchestral Horns of Chicago in February 1977 in a fourth-floor loft on West Superior Street.

Around that time, André Previn was guest conducting the Chicago Symphony, and he mentioned to Clevenger how much he admired the sound of the horn section and asked what kind of instruments it played. His answer was horns by Schmidt and Geyer — craftsmen who were dead by that time. But Clevenger noted that a new maker had just opened up and was following in their footsteps. Lewis met with Previn, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where the conductor was music director at the time, placed an order for five of Lewis’ horns — the first ones he made on his own.

Lewis later moved to the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan, across the hall from the studio of Jacobs, who was the Chicago Symphony’s principal tuba from 1944 through 1988. The two would often kibbutz, with Jacobs telling stories about music director Fritz Reiner. Lewis needed more space as well as concrete floors to support the weight of his machinery, so he began looking for another location. Lewis had long admired the historic Deagan Building, 1770 W. Berteau, in Ravenswood, which once housed J.C. Deagan Inc., manufacturer of instruments such as xylophones, Swiss handbells and glockenspiels. In December 1981, he took over the company’s former engineering department, staying for 35 years. For the last five years, his shop has been located in a former film-production facility in Evanston.

Although Lewis has made eight different models of horns as well as horn mutes (he also collaborates on another line of horns with a German maker, Dietmar Duerk), he is best known for his Geyer model, based on the design of Carl Geyer (1880-1953), a Chicago craftsman who made more than 1,400 horns. “Steve is the heir or descendant of Carl Geyer,” Gingrich said. “His horns are far more consistent than Geyer’s, but there is some continuity of tradition.”

Lewis’ Geyer model has changed little since 1977, other than small improvements in such areas as the “accuracy” of extruded parts. “I am all about constantly raising the bar and challenging myself to improve,” he said. Lewis recently completed, for example, a three-year study of bell resonance with a colleague in Europe. The result is his new Lewis Prism Bell, which gives his horns “freer-blowing, improved intonation.”

Lewis’ horns are made of yellow brass, with nickel silver slides and a medium-sized bell. “This is all based on my sound concept vis-à-vis my experience with the tradition of the Chicago Symphony and that tradition evolving from middle Europe,” Lewis said.

A key aspect of his horns is the use of the rotary valve. A French horn is actually two horns in one: a low-pitched horn in F for the low register and a B-flat horn for high register, and a dedicated valve allows a player to switch between the two. For many years, CSO players played horns by C.F. Schmidt of Berlin, with a piston selector valve, which was hard to negotiate. So Lewis uses an easier-to-manipulate rotary change valve on his instruments. “What I accomplished with the Lewis horn is make a horn with a rotary change valve perform much like a Schmidt horn with its piston,” he said.

Lewis long ago secured his place among history’s great makers of French horns, and his legacy will live on through his horns, which should last a lifetime in the hands of a careful musician. He points out that Clevenger owns a Schmidt horn from 1914 that remains in playing condition. In addition, Lewis’ achievements are lastingly preserved on every French horn passage of CSO recordings in recent decades.

“Ultimately, my dream would be, before he stops making horns, to have one more [Lewis] horn,” Cooper said. ” “I would love to have a set for the Chicago Symphony, so the next generation of horn players after me could have a Lewis horn to play.”

Kyle MacMillan, the former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts critic.

TOP: The CSO horn section — Oto Carrillo (from left), Daniel Gingrich, David Cooper, David Griffin, Susanna Gaunt and James Smelser — plays instruments made by local artisan Steven Lewis. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography