|About this Recording
8.559057 - FRY: Santa Claus Symphony / Niagara Symphony
William Henry Fry (1813-1864)
In many ways, William Henry Fry, who was born in Philadelphia in 1813 and died in Santa Cruz in the Virgin Islands in 1864, lived a life of firsts. He was the first native-born American to write for large symphonic forces, and the first to write a grand opera. He was the first music critic for a major newspaper, and the first vociferously to insist that Americans support the music created on their own soil.
Fry's firsts were not merely academic, for his life was played out in public view. In Philadelphia he reviewed music and art for his father's newspapers, later becoming an editor. His lave of Italian bel canto, which we can hear in all his music, but especially in his opera Leonara, started here as he was exposed to touring companies. From Europe in 1846 to 1852, he dispatched opinions on culture and politics as correspondent for newspapers in Philadelphia and New York City. Back in New York working for the Tribune, he gave a series of highly publicized and admired lectures on the history of music, riveting his audiences with his encyclopedic knowledge. His early death at 51, apparent1y from tuberculosis accelerated by exhaustion, elicited tributes from across the land.
Fry's music, when it was heard, was well liked Santa Claus and The Breaking Heart were played dozens of times by the Jullien Orchestra, which championed his music on its tour of America Leonora triumphed in Philadelphia in 1845 and New York in 1858 Even critics who took issue with his outspoken theories and insistent drum-beating for American music lauded his gifts as a composer.
Turning to the first work, we see so many remarkable features in Fry's Santa Claus, Christmas Symphony of 1853, that we run the risk of considering it a mere curiosity What Fry called a symphony we might term a fantasy or overture, but by any name it remains a tight1y constructed drama full of heady drawing-room romanticism. Fry called it 'the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity', and he was doubtless correct He composed it for the unsurpassed Jullien soloists, their technique showing in very high passages for the winds and the violins, and many solos, even a rare one for the double bass. It also seems that this is the first symphonic use anywhere of the newly invented saxophone.
Fry's meticulously followed story line deserves a look. The trumpet announces the Saviour's birth, and the celestial host takes up the chorus. The exultation is broken by loud discords as some of the angels fall away in anger, but harmonious triumph concludes the section. Now a Christmas Eve party. reunited family, dancing, and general frivolity are depicted in pell-mell joy An impending snowstorm arrives in the brass, but the dancing resumes, quieter this time as the party-goers leave for home. As sleep descends, Fry employs one of his favorite devices, the setting of text to instrumental declamation. We hear The Lord's Prayer in syllabic cadence on the upper strings, followed by 'Rock-a-by baby' on the soprano saxophone. Muted strings even mimic the baby's breathing. The snowstorm again comes into view, and in the middle of it is a traveller (the solo double bass). Lost and alone, his moans are heard through the wind as he perishes.
But this depressing scene shifts as Santa Claus enters, with the voice of the high bassoon, here in his horse-drawn sleigh Down the chimney he slides with flutes accompanying; plucked strings signify the clicking of toys being dropped into stockings The children still sleep Santa leaves, the sound of hooves and bells receding into the distance.
Up in the sky, extremely high violins portray a chorus of angels singing the familiar Adeste fideles. The sun rises on Christmas Day. The house awakens to the sounds of 'Get up!' on the horn and 'Little Bo-peep' on the trumpets as the children play The beginning of the work reappears, as does the Adeste fideles, as Santa Claus closes in a hymn of praise.
Fry wrote his Overture to Macbeth in 1864, the last year of his life We know of no performance of this, arguably Fry's best work, ever It is an exciting overture in the big romantic style, and fully deserves to be established in the repertoire. Fry again uses his instrumental text declamations, the most obvious right at the beginning, The words are from Act IV, but hang over the whole work as Fry telescopes the action' the trombones and tuba take on the role of the witches'. Double, double toil and trouble, Fire bum and cauldron bubble….' Next from Act I, as Macbeth approaches, the brass choir salutes with the witches' first haunting words to him: 'All hail Macbeth!' And again, the trumpet sounds the ironic prophecy. 'Be bloody, bold' and resolute…for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,' The bewitched trombones punctuate the bloody course of Macbeth's deeds, and the overture rushes toward the final battle and his demise. The orchestra ends with its proclamation of the rightful heir 'Long live King Malcolm!'
Fry wrote the Niagara Symphony for an 1854 P.T., Barnum 'Monster Concert', but there is no record that it was actually performed, perhaps because Fry finished it only five days before the concert, Niagara is extravagantly panoramic in scope as befits all good travelogue pieces, He held back nothing in his striving for a sensational impact. The gorge thunders with eleven timpani (!), and giddy scale passages depict the roaring waters. In its midst is a quiet, hymn-like contemplation before the cascade returns.
The Breaking Heart was thought to have been lost, but we now know that it was also called Adagio or Adagio sostenuto (conclusively proven by Joseph Harvey, in his 1999 dissertation for West Chester University, Pennsylvania). Listening to it now, we can see why it was so popular. The operatic influences on Fry are never far away the longing trombones, the willowy strings, the bubbling coloratura flute solo all speak eloquently to what he had absorbed so well. So expressive and teeming with melodrama and lovely tunes, The Breaking Heart takes us from idylls to melancholy and back The orchestra finds its voice efficiently, the graceful melodies flowing without effort.
There is still much of Fry's music that has never been heard, and this recording offers the first public hearing ever of the Niagara Symphony and the Overture to Macbeth. Now we can judge for ourselves the gifts of this remarkable and groundbreaking composer and witness the very beginning of a nation's symphonic tradition.
National Orchestra (RSNO)
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