William Henry Fry (April 10, 1813- Dec. 21, 1864) was one of the first native-born American composers to achieve any fame in the realm of “classical” music was. Fry was born in Philadelphia on April 10, though sources differ as to whether the date was 1813 or 1815, although 1813 is most likely. Fry’s father, William Fry, was the publisher of the National Gazette in Philadelphia, and instilled in his sons, Joseph, Edward, Charles, and William, abiding interests in the arts and politics. Educated at the schools of his native city and at what is now Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmettsburg, MD, the fourteen-year old William Henry attended performances in 1827 at Philadelphia of the French Opera Company from New Orleans. This was probably his first exposure to opera, and it left a lasting impression.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1830, Fry was later admitted to the bar. He had begun composing in his early years and by the age of twenty he composed four overtures, the fourth of which was performed in 1833 by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society. Soon afterward in 1835 he went through a course of musical study with Leopold Meignen, a former band leader in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and the music director of the Musical Fund Society orchestra, among other local musicians. Fry became secretary of the Philharmonic Society in 1836 and would go on to compose four operas, beginning in 1838 with Christians and Pagans, which was never completed. In 1841 he composed Aurelia the Vestal to a libretto by his brother Joseph R. Fry, but it was never produced during his lifetime.
Fry is perhaps best remembered for his third opera, Leonora, which he composed in 1845 to a another libretto by Joseph based on The Lady of Lyons by Bulwer-Lytton. The opera received its premiere on June 4, 1845, at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in a performance by the Sequin opera troupe, conducted by Leopold Meignen. It was successful enough to receive a run of twelve performances and is often cited as being the first public performance of a grand opera by an American-born composer. Fry revised Leonora as Giulio e Leonora for performances by an Italian opera company at the Academy of Music in New York in March of 1858. The general public seemed to appreciate the opera, but the revision received mixed reviews from critics and was only performed two times. Fry’s final opera was Notre Dame de Paris, or Esmeralda, after the novel by Victor Hugo, completed in 1863, once again to a libretto supplied by his brother Joseph. It was performed seven times in May of 1864 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, conducted by Theodore Thomas. After this it was also produced in New York but won no attention there.
Fry also composed music in other genres, including four programmatic symphonies with descriptive titles: Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony, Childe Harold, The Breaking Heart, and A Day in the Country, all four of which were performed by Louis Antoine Jullien and his orchestra during their tour of the United States in 1853 and 1854, and Eleven Violin Quartets. His 1854 Niagara Symphony, written for the orchestra of Louis Juillien, uses eleven tympani to create the roar of the waters, snare drums to reproduce the hiss of the spray, and a remarkable series of discordant chromatic descending scales to reproduce the chaos of the falling waters as they crash onto the rocks. Fry also wrote sacred choral works, including an oratorio, Stabat Mater in 1855, and Mass in E-flat, completed only nine days before his death. Conservatives tended to dislike Fry’s music, whereas political progressives highly enjoyed it. As important as Fry was for his musical output, he was even more influential in his role as music critic. Because his father was the publisher of the National Gazette in Philadelphia, Fry covered theater, music, and art for the newspaper as a youth beginning in 1839. In 1844 he himself became an editor at the Philadelphia Ledger and, after going to Europe in 1846 for six years of study and observation, by 1849 was the European correspondent for the New York Tribune. He lived in Paris for three years where he was able to absorb the cultural life of that city.
Upon his return to New York in 1852, Fry became the music critic at the Tribune, which was the first such position at an American daily newspaper. Soon afterward he wrote the music to an ode for the opening of the New York industrial exhibition of 1853 and began a series of ten or eleven lectures that ran in New York’s Metropolitan Hall from 1852 to 1853 about the history and language of music, which included musical illustrations performed by assisting musicians, including the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Harmonic Society Chorus, conducted by George F. Bristow, and members of the Italian Opera Company. Fry lost money on this venture but found an additional podium from which to voice his views. One of the most important of Fry’s arguments was that American composers must find their own voice, free of European influences. In the final lecture in the series, Fry made the following statement:
“Until this Declaration in Art shall be made–until American composers shall discard their foreign liveries and found an American school–and until the American public shall learn to support American artists, Art will not become indigenous to this country, but will only exist as a feeble exotic, and we shall continue to be provincial in Art. The American composer should not allow the name of Beethoven, or Handel, or Mozart to prove an eternal bugbear to him, nor should he pay them reverence; he should only reverence his Art, and strike out manfully and independently into untrodden realms, just as his nature and inspirations may invite him, else he can never achieve lasting renown.”
In addition, Fry was an occasional political speaker and a lecturer on various topics of the day. He published a volume entitled Artificial Fish Breeding in 1854. For several years he suffered from lingering consumption (tuberculosis). While lying bedridden in his house near the New York Academy of Music he asked permission to have a telephone-like device connected so that he could hear something of the music. During the last two years of his life, he was accustomed to sit propped up in bed while an opera was going on at the Academy, with his telephone in one hand and the libretto of the opera in the other. At the foot of the bed, standing against the footboard, were the photographs of the chief singers engaged in the performance. Unsuccessfully seeking relief in a milder climate, he died on Dec. 21, 1864, at Santa Cruz in the West Indies, now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Fry is often considered the father of American opera. His Leonora is sometimes performed today. Not much of his other music is remembered, although Naxos has an album of Fry’s orchestral music in their “American Classics” series that includes his Santa Clause–Christmas and Niagara Symphonies, Overture to Macbeth and The Breaking Heart. Some of these, or portions of them, are also used on a few other Naxos albums, such as American Classics–A Sampler, American Classics–Celebrate the American Spirit, and The Story of American Classical Music; and New World Records has an album of 19th Century Piano Music entitled The Wind Demon with Ivan Davis that includes a piece entitled “Adieu” by Fry.
The following works by William Henry Fry are contained in my collection:
The Breaking Heart, or Adagio Sostenuto
Niagara Symphony (1854)
Overture to Macbeth (1864)
Santa Claus, Christmas Symphony (1853)
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources