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Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, December 2009

William Henry Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony has to be my Christmas Discovery. I had never heard of Fry until I came across this Naxos recording, though he was famous both as a musicologist and as a composer in his own day. It’s almost impossible to describe the Santa Claus Symphony, with its dissent among the Christmas angels and a poor wretch perishing in the snow, yet all ending happily with Santa’s arrival and the proclamation of Christmas. The other music is equally worth hearing and the performance and recording do the music proud., January 2009


Michael Fine
Fanfare, August 2001

William Fry’s…music is genuine Americana and more than just a curiosity. According to the excellent notes by Kile Smilth, Fry was ‘the first native-born American to write for large symphonic forces and the first to write a grand opera.’ As a writer, he was a champion of American composers…Fry’s own voice is distinctive…Tony Rowe acquits himself well, making a convincing case for Fry. The presence of producer Tim Handley ensures high production standards, not a given with Naxos…

Joseph Horowitz
The New York Times, July 2001

A landmark release (which I discussed in Arts & Leisure in December) of four orchestral works by William Henry Fry (Naxos 8.559057), with parts recreated from handwritten materials. In the 1850’s, Fry was a musical trigger-point; his self-promoting fulminations in The New York Tribune ignited a firestorm of denunciation and support. When Fry protested the New York Philharmonic’s neglect of American composers (notably himself), Richard Storrs Willis of The Musical World and Times defended the orchestra’s rejection of Fry’s ‘Santa Claus’ Symphony: ‘My dear Fry, I admire your genius, but it is genius astray…You are a splendid frigate at sea without a helm.’

Naxos now enables us to hear what the symphony actually sounds like; listening to Tony Rowe’s splendid performance, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, one can sympathize with both parties in the dispute. With its sound effects and programmatic cues—blatantly signaling a snowstorm, a perishing traveler, Santa’s sleigh and the like—this score was simply too bizarre for the Germanic New York Philharmonic. But its outrageous pretensions and incidental charms perfectly suited the Monster Concerts for the Masses purveyed by Louis Jullien, who gave the first performance in 1853, enthroned on his accustomed scarlet armchair.

Jeremy Nicholas
International Record Review, April 2001

This release is the first opportunity anyone has ever had of hearing his music on disc, ipso facto a valuable exercise for which Naxos should be heartily congratulated. But the music and the playing make it much more than a mere archaeological dig. I can only say that I enjoyed it all hugely-and if the disc doesn’t provoke concert performances of the Santa Claus and Niagara Symphonies during this year’s seasonal festivities, then Father Christmas simply doesn’t exist.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, April 2001

Don’t miss this fascinating and fun CD in Naxos’ American Classics series!

Steven J. Haller
American Record Guide, April 2001

And shouting there surely was, or at least heated discussions in the press, when the Santa Claus Symphony was heard for the first time on Christmas Eve 1853 in a performance by the French conductor Louis Jullien. While Fry by all accounts a most eccentric individual-Joseph Horowitz, who is currently at work compiling a history of classical music in the United States, goes so far as to label him “a formidable blowhard” he paled beside Jullien, who regularly scheduled what he called “monster Concerts for the Masses”, conducting imperiously from a scarlet armchair (and in music of Beethoven even wielding a jeweled baton conveyed on a silver tray). Jullien took great pleasure in programming American music then royally disdained by the decade-old New York Philharmonic, including Fry and George Frederick Bristow. In this we can presume he was enthusiastically supported by Fry, who proudly proclaimed Santa Claus “the largest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity”. Indeed Fry had Jullien’s virtuoso players in mind when he wrote the piece, filling the score with lavish sound effects and appending a program that might daunt even Franz Liszt. While the most heated controversy at the time appears to have been whether or not it deserved to be called a symphony-one critic insisted it was “no symphony but an unconstrained fantasia” such matters need not concern us today, only the untrammeled joy and evocative imagery Fry here summons forth so effortlessly.

A rather Verdian melody in the trumpet-according to the notes, this tells of the birth of Christ-is answered by beatific strings, swelling to a climax with full brass support. A downward turn in the clarinet raises the curtain on a Christmas Eve party-at a Scottish-born household, to judge from the snappish rhythms-but this gives way to a great snow-storm, with one traveler (portrayed by the double bass) perishing amid the drifts. The revels continue, quite oblivious to the poor fellow’s plight, and as night descends the strings spell out The Lord’s Prayer in syllabic cadence. Now Santa enters in his horse-drawn sleight, whipping along his steeds with great enthusiasm, and we hear him sliding down the chimney with his bag of goodies, then departing before the strains of ‘O Come All ye Faithful’ swell in the orchestra to close things out. Along the way there is much virtuoso writing for oboe and flute as well as clarinet, plus what the notes describe as ‘Rock-a-by Baby’ in the soprano saxophone, though not the melody we know today. In all, it is a quaint mix of secular and religious imagery that must seem anathema to present-day bluenoses who cannot abide the idea of setting up a manager display on public property.

As it happens, the Metropolitan concert was not the first attempt to re-introduce Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony to a new generation; for I have in my possession a tape of Howard Shanet leading the Columbia University Orchestra and members of the Manhattan School of Music in this same piece back in December of 1975, with the venerable William Schuman serving as narrator (at Shanet’s urging, he has-tended to point out) and calling on the audience to join in singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ at the end, warning them to do a good job of it too or they’d have to sing it twice. No such narration is included here, nor is any really needed thanks to annotator Kile Smith’s cogent narrative and the fine work of the engineers. Of course you can still sing along if you like.

Given that Fry was probably already forgotten a generation after his death, we can only wonder whether Ferde Grofé might have had occasion to hear his Niagara Symphony when he came to write his own Niagara Falls Suite more than a century late (Sept/Oct 1999). In this piece originally intended for a PT Barnum spectacle, Fry rivals Grofé in depicting the sheer force of the falls, calling for 11 timpani plus snare drum, and the roiling waters may be heard in the swirling strings and rapid-fire tattoos from the trumpet. The waters recede long enough for a brief chorale from winds and brass, in Smith’s words “a quiet, hymn-like contemplation before the cascade returns.

This picture postcard resonates with greater effect today than the heaving-bosom passions of The Breaking Heart, understandably quite popular with audiences of Fry’s time but now sounding too sentimental in its melo-dramatic depiction of unrequited love. A yearning strain blossoms forth in the strings and soon swells to full orchestra, transporting us (in Smith’s words) “from idylls to melancholy and back”. It might in fact be taken as “opera without words”, styled more for Bocelli than Domingo perhaps.

The Overture to Macbeth, described not unreasonably by Smith as “probably Fry’s best work, ever”, actually seems closer to Granville Bantock’s counterpart written some 75 years later than Verdi, not the least for its spectacular use of the stentorian trombones, who here embody the three witches in most terrifying fashion as the strings (representing the churning cauldron) roil underneath. It is a simple matter to follow the events as they turn against Macbeth.

The notes take great pains to claim world premiere status for this recording; yet many will surely have in their collection Karl Krueger’s LP with the Royal Philharmonic of some 35 years ago. Krueger leads a vigorous account-if without quite Rowe’s manic energy-but the Scottish strings handily outplay their London colleagues.

With superlative playing from the Scots that might have pleased even the imperious Jullien, this release at once ascends to the top of anyone’s list. It is a treat whatever the time of year, and truly an “American Classic”, Enjoy!

Victor Carr Jr., March 2001

William Henry Fry (1813–64) was the first native-born American to write for large orchestral forces (and the first to compose a grand opera), and was a vociferous supporter of music home-grown in the good old U.S.A. That’s not to say Fry’s music didn’t contain European influences: traces of Berlioz, Wagner, and Verdi all show up in his work; but he also manages to include elements of (then) American popular song. For example, the Santa Claus Symphony of 1853 (really more of an extended symphonic poem) features “Rock-a-bye Baby” played on a soprano saxophone. Actually, Santa Claus makes only a brief appearance in this narrative-derived piece, which among other things depicts a lost traveler dying in a snowstorm and the birth of the Savior, before ending with the strings intoning “O come, all ye faithful”. Fry’s orchestral writing is vividly picturesque, with much imagination lavished on the score’s fantasy elements.

An even more graphic portrayal can be found in the 1854 Niagara Symphony, which after a rumbling introduction roars out a big unison theme that mimics the Tuba mirum from Mozart’s Requiem. The Overture to Macbeth (1864) contains some pretty exciting passages as well, and here’s where the Berlioz influence is particularly strong (especially in the witches’ music). Lastly, Fry’s The Breaking Heart (a work once believed to be lost) shows his love for Italian bel canto in its many lyrical and “operatic” passages. All told, this is a highly compelling album of some first-rate 19th century orchestral music, enthusiastically and stylishly performed by Tony Rowe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and recorded in top-drawer sound—another winner in Naxos’ spectacular American Classics series.

Stephen Pettitt
, December 2000

William Henry Fry—born 1813, died 1864—holds the distinction of having been the composer of the first American opera. These four orchestral works, splendidly played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Tony Rowe, show a composer of ambition, perhaps too often given to what, in a European context, would be considered solecism. The charming Santa Claus Symphony combines the tale of the nativity with a description of Santa’s yuletide work. Fry throws in some well-known tunes, including, with heart-stirring tremolandos, Adeste Fideles. The other works evoke Schumann, Wagner and Berlioz (at his most outre), but perhaps most significantly seem to point the way towards the recklessly rapturous side of Charles Ives.

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