Born in early nineteenth century Philadelphia, William Henry Fry (1813-1864) was one of America’s first composers for the symphony orchestra and opera. An outspoken supporter of American music and seeker of the “American” sound, Fry was also a widely-published music critic and author in an era of significant social and musical change.
The son of William Fry, publisher of the significant Philadelphia Newspaper The National Gazette and Literary Register, young William Henry and his four brothers developed discerning attitudes towards literature, politics, and the arts. Education was of critical importance to the Fry family, and the elder William ensured that his sons received the best – sending them away from Philadelphia to attend Mount Saint Mary’s, a Roman Catholic institution in Emmitsburg, Maryland. While there is no surviving documentation of William Henry’s particular studies at the school, it is said that he began to compose when he was only fourteen. When Fry returned from school in 1830 to work for The National Gazette, he had a new appreciation for Philadelphia’s transformed music scene. While William Henry was away, Philadelphia experienced an increase in the presence of international musical ensembles, with French and Italian opera companies coming to town and presenting multiple works each season. This gave the budding composer exposure to a wide range of language, libretti, and musical styles – preparing him well to begin lessons with French composer Leopold Meignen, who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1833.
Fry’s early compositions – primarily overtures – began to be performed anonymously by itinerant opera companies. By 1841, Fry had composed his first full opera, Aurelia the Vestal. The libretto was written in English by his brother Joseph, and Fry continued to write with English text throughout his career, believing that opera should be in the native language of the audience for the best accessibility. While Fry went on to write numerous operas and choral works, his most famous vocal composition was the opera Leonora, which premiered in Philadelphia in 1845. Opening at the Chestnut Street Theatre under the baton of Leopold Meignen, Leonora is thought to be the first public performance of an opera written by an American composer.
Besides choral and operatic works, William Henry Fry also contributed to the literature for the symphony. A relatively new concept at the time, the first large-scale symphony orchestra did not exist in America until the creation of the Philharmonic Society of New York (now the New York Philharmonic) in 1842. With the door open for success of the symphony, Fry composed multiple significant works for the large-scale ensemble – the most notable being The Santa Claus Symphony. Premiering on Christmas Eve, 1853, The Santa Claus Symphony was a programmatic work. Like Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, the Santa Claus Symphony does not stop between movements. Telling a tale of a Christmas gathering, a snowstorm, and the arrival of Santa Claus himself, the symphony is a well-orchestrated masterclass of instrumentation and storytelling. Fry was a fan of the programmatic approach, believing that the antiquated four-movement formal approach to the symphony was outdated for the nineteenth century.
William Henry Fry’s commitment to composition underlined his lifelong crusade to legitimize American music in the eyes of European critics. A tireless advocate for creating an “American” sound, Fry often found himself in heated arguments with other American-born composers through various newspaper columns over his perceived pretension of Western art music. Completing stints as a foreign correspondent in Europe, Fry certainly appreciated the works of European composers and allowed this time there to shape his vision for where he believed American music should go. Deciding that “the value of the symphony is settled by the republic,” Fry believed that the epitome of American musical genius would be a melting pot of international musical styles.
Unfortunately, Fry’s life was cut short during a trip to the Caribbean Island of Saint Croix. Taken by tuberculosis at the age of 51, William Henry Fry’s death threw a wrench in the burgeoning American classical music community. We will never know how Fry’s music and ideology would have shaped (or been shaped by) post-Civil War America, but his discerning views on America’s musical future as a “melting pot” of styles has certainly held true.