William Henry Fry

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William Henry Fry

William Henry Fry (1813-1864) was the first American to compose a publicly performed grand opera, acritic, and an early champion of American composers.

William Henry Fry was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 10, 1813, son of the publisher of the Philadelphia National Gazette. He is said to have learned to play the piano by listening to instructions given his elder brother. He began formal study of harmony and counterpoint early in the 1830s with a Paris Conservatory graduate in Philadelphia. In 1836 Fry became secretary of the Philharmonic Society (organized 3 years earlier) and began his career as a music critic, reviewing concerts and writing articles for his father's newspaper.

In 1841 Fry completed Aurelia the Vestal, an opera he had worked on some 4 years. When attempts to have it produced failed, he turned his attention to Leonora, which was to become his best-known work. This opera, with a libretto adapted from a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, had its world premiere on June 4, 1845, in Philadelphia. It ran for 12 performances and was well enough regarded by the Seguin Opera Company to warrant a four-performance revival the next year.

Fry himself did not witness the revival, since he had departed for Europe as regular correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Tribune early in 1846. He remained abroad, mostly in Paris, for more than 6 years, returning to America in 1862 as political and general editor, as well as music critic, of the New York Tribune.

In New York, Fry gave a remarkable series of lectures on music; in the last he bitterly attacked Americans for their indifference to their own composers, emphasizing the need to encourage homegrown creators.

A high point in Fry's career came in 1853, when Louis Antoine Jullien's orchestra played three of his symphonies: A Day in the Country, The Breaking Heart, and Santa Claus. At his farewell benefit of May 31, 1854, Jullien performed yet another, Childe Harold. Fry's most notable orchestral achievement was perhaps the overture to Macbeth, completed in 1862.

A considerably revised version of Leonora with Italian text was presented at the Academy of Music in New York in 1858 with indifferent success. Another opera, Notre Dame de Paris, was produced in Philadelphia in 1864. Fry also composed a Stabat Mater, a Mass, and shorter compositions. He died in Santa Cruz, West Indies, on Dec. 21, 1864.

Further Reading

William T. Upton, William Henry Fry: American Journalist and Composer-Critic (1954), is an adequate full-length treatment. A chapter in Irving Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America (1964), is devoted to Fry's nationalism. The biographical sketch in Frédéric Louis Ritter, Music in America (1883), was furnished by one of Fry's brothers. The most detailed account of Fry in a standard music history is in John Tasker Howard, Our American Music: A Comprehensive History from 1620 to the Present (1931; 4th ed. 1965). □

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