Born: December 19, 1825; Brooklyn, NY
Died: December 13, 1898; New York, NY
Although he was an early and indefatigable champion of American music, George Frederick Bristow never quite managed to develop a compositional style that was either American or personal; his music sounds mainly like imitation Mendelssohn. He did much, however, to develop an American musical consciousness, and he worked at the center of nineteenth century American musical life as a ubiquitous violinist, conductor, and teacher in New York CityRead more .
Born in Brooklyn, Bristow was the son of William Richard Bristow, a local conductor and clarinetist. Young Frederick took lessons in musical subjects from a number of private teachers, the nation still lacking institutions devoted to music education. He began working professionally as a musician at age 13, when as a violinist he joined a theater "orchestra" (actually a sextet). Just five years later, in 1843, he joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic in its second season; he would remain there until 1879, aside from a one-man work stoppage in 1854.
In his early adulthood, Bristow became a busy freelancer, playing and often serving as concertmaster in several short-term orchestras besides the Philharmonic, including the ensemble that accompanied Jenny Lind during her much-hyped 1850-1851 appearances. He conducted choirs, too, including the New York Harmonic Society (1851-1863) and the Mendelssohn Society (1867-1871), while also directing church choirs and teaching in public schools from 1854 until his death.
Bristow, along with Anthony Philip Heinrich and William H. Fry, advocated forming an American school of composition, yet his own music always relied heavily on German models and tended to ramble in large-scale forms. Even so, his symphonies and chamber works hold many interesting and individual touches, and Bristow took inspiration (or at least titles) from American scenes and stories in his operas Rip Van Winkle and Columbus, his cantatas The Great Republic and Niagara, and many smaller works. Bristow so strongly advocated the performance of American music that he refused to play in the New York Philharmonic for several months in 1854 in protest of its Eurocentric programming (even though the Philharmonic often performed Bristow's music). Bristow is remembered as a colorful figure in American musical history, although his compositions have yet to enjoy a serious revival. Read less
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