William Henry Fry

Biography

Born: August 19, 1813; Philadelphia, PA   Died: December 21, 1864; Santa Cruz, West Indies  
William Henry Fry was to nineteenth-century New York what Virgil Thomson became a century later -- a composer, newspaper critic, and author who proselytized tirelessly on behalf of American music. He was even Thomson's distant predecessor on Horace Greeley's NY Tribune (which merged with the Herald in 1924 to form the NY Herald Tribune). Fry's father was publisher of the National Gazette, and his sons' education was chiefly literary. But William Read more loved music, and taught himself to play the piano by eavesdropping on elder brother Joseph's lessons. When William composed an overture at age 14, he was encouraged to study theory and composition with Leopold Meignen, a former Paris Conservatoire pupil. Within six years, young Fry had written three more overtures; one of them was awarded a gold medal and a performance by Philadelphia's "Philharmonic Society." By then, however, opera had come to the New World, and Fry was bewitched, especially by Bellini, Donizetti, and early Verdi.

In lieu of detailed documentation, his pursuits appear to have been literary for the next decade. In 1845, however, he completed a three-act opera, Leonora, to a libretto adapted by brother Joseph from Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons -- the first music-drama by an American composer to be performed publicly. It was given a lavish production on June 4, 1845, at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia, and ran successfully for 12 nights, employing a chorus of 80 and an orchestra of 60, funded in part by the composer. A revised version, Giulio e Leonore, was staged 13 years later in NYC, by which time Fry had lived and traveled in Europe for six years (1846 - 1852) as the NY Tribune's cultural correspondent. Colleagues gave it mixed reviews.

Fry was appointed music editor of the Tribune in 1852. In addition, he scheduled a series of 10 lectures at Metropolitan Hall "upon the Science and Art of Music and upon the most colossal scale....A corps of principal Italian vocalists; a grand chorus of 100 singers; an orchestra of 80 performers; a military band of 50 performers." The ticket price was $5 for the course, while costs were estimated at $10,000. In his famous last lecture, Fry attacked America's appetite for foreign music and artists at the expense of native composers, who were "spit upon" in Europe. He later amended his remarks, saying it was critics who ignored American art, denying audiences the opportunity of hearing it.

Fry the composer had not been idle, however, and had four symphonies ready when Louis Jullien, champion of new music, brought his celebrated touring orchestra to America in 1853 -- Childe Harold, A Day in the Country, The Breaking Heart, and Santa Claus. The last of these, Fry claimed, was "the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject [26 minutes], with unbroken continuity." More tone-poem than symphony, it had an elaborate program and was the first work ever to feature a saxophone. Santa Claus was recorded in 1999 along with The Breaking Heart and a Niagara Symphony, written for P.T. Barnum's "Monster Concert"in 1854. Fry wrote two more "symphonies" -- Hagar in the Wilderness, and The Dying Soldier -- as well as a Stabat Mater, an unfinished Mass in E flat, and several string quartets.

Before his death from tuberculosis, he completed an Overture to Macbeth and a second opera, Notre Dame of Paris (after Hugo), which was produced at Philadelphia on May 3, 1864, under Theodore Thomas' direction. Read less

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