Anthony Philip (Anton Philipp) Heinrich (March 11, 1781 – May 3, 1861), a self-taught musician and composer aside from some childhood piano and violin lessons, who played the violin and piano, was the first “full-time” American composer, and the most prominent before the American Civil War. Born to a German-Bohemian family of modest circumstances in Schönbuchel (now Krásný Buk), Bohemia, on March 11, 1781, Heinrich was given into the care of a rich uncle, whose thriving business empire he inherited in 1800. He visited America in 1805, and then tried to start a business at Boston in 1810, only to have it fail. Moving to Philadelphia, PA, with his daughter named Antonia after his Bostonian wife died in 1814, then stranded in America by the loss of his entire fortune in the Napoleonic Wars and the ensuing economic crash, he resolved to take up his long-time avocation and become a professional violinist and conductor, and did not start composing until he was 36. A formative experience for him was a 700-mile journey, on foot and by boat, into the wilderness of Pennsylvania and then along the Ohio River into Kentucky in 181. Shortly after his arrival in Kentucky in 1817, he conducted a performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony at Lexington–only the second time a Beethoven symphony had been performed in the United States.
The sights and sounds of the new American frontier inspired some of the most original, if not strange, program music of the nineteenth century. Locating first in Louisville and then settling in an abandoned slave log cabin near Bardstown, KY, in 1818, Heinrich began to produce a body of work unlike anything being written in Europe at the time. They include The Dawning of Music in Kentucky, or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature (1820); The Treaty of William Penn with the Indians, a rare 19th century concerto grosso (1834); The Wild Wood Spirits’ Chant (ca. 1842); The Ornithological Combat of Kings, or the Condor of the Andes (1847); The Columbiad, or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons (1858); and The Minstrelsy of Nature in the Wilds of North America. America’s self-proclaimed loghouse composer, he was identified as the “Beethoven of America” by one critic, the Boston writer John Rowe Parker, in1823. He was also dubbed “the Western Minstrel.” For most of his career he was known as “Father Heinrich,” an emeritus figure of America’s small classical music community. He chaired the founding meeting of the New York Philharmonic Society in 1842.
Stylistically Heinrich’s music is considered Romantic, partly because of their autobiographical quality, and is concerned with nature and American culture and heritage. His compositions have more in common with other early American music than with the models of his European contemporaries. He shunned development, preferring episodic forms, especially the theme with variations, which he used to impressive expressive effect. He occasionally wrote passages of startling, even jarring, chromaticism, usually in an attempt to express an extra-musical idea. Often his music has an improvisatory quality. Indeed, much of his music may be notated improvisation, considering its copious quantity. His generous allowances for performer interpretation are arguably the beginning of indeterminacy in American music. Many of his works are descriptive tone-poems over the American landscape . He was also the first composer to incorporate the American Indian into his work in his orchestral piece Pushmataha, a Venerable Chief of a Western Tribe of Indians of 1831. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians said, “The sources of his musical style are found in Haydn and to some extent Beethoven, but they have the greater ornateness of Italian opera….Heinrich’s melodic style is strongly influenced by classical dance music, and melodic quotation plays an important role in his compositional technique, particularly self-quotation and the quotation of popular, patriotic tunes (e.g. ‘Hail Columbia,’ ‘Yankee Doodle,’ ‘God Save the King’).”
Heinrich was successful in his European tours, undertaken because of a lack of competent orchestras in the United States in the period before the American Civil War. He went to London in 1827 and returned to America by 1832. He then went back to Europe in 1834, returning to America in 1838 and working in and around New York City, NY. Heinrich was very well connected with diplomats, judges, lawyers, doctors, writers, and poets, and even received an audience with President John Tyler to play one of his own compositions. Heinrich was also well-known in Europe: his works were played often there, and he himself played violin in several concerts in the orchestras of Drury Lane and Vauxhall Gardens in London. Although his orchestral music was too complex for the limited abilities of the period’s home-grown ensembles, the orchestras of America’s principal cities frequently made valiant efforts on Heinrich’s behalf. His music was featured in several festivals in New York and Boston near the end of his life. Heinrich’s vocal works include hundreds of songs, as well as works for violin and piano, unprecedented thus far in American musical history. He nevertheless died neglected, on May 3, 1861 in New York City, in the poverty he had fled. Occasionally Heinrich’s music is revived, often with some amazement at his enthusiasm, expressiveness, and eccentricity. In different ways Heinrich may be seen as a forerunner to both Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Charles Ives
My collection includes the following work by Heinrich:
The Ornthological Combat of Kings or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras, a Grand Symphony.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources