FRY: Santa Claus Symphony / Niagara Symphony (Classic Christmas) (Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Tony Rowe) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559057)
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William Henry Fry (1813-1864)
Santa Claus Symphony
Overture to Macbeth
The Breaking Heart
In many ways,William Henry Fry, who was born in Philadelphia in 1813 and died in Santa Cruzin the Virgin Islands in 1864, lived a life of firsts. He was the firstnative-born American to write for large symphonic forces, and the first towrite a grand opera. He was the first music critic for a major newspaper, andthe first vociferously to insist that Americans support the music created ontheir own soil.
Fry's firsts werenot merely academic, for his life was played out in public view. InPhiladelphia he reviewed music and art for his father's newspapers, laterbecoming an editor. His lave of Italian belcanto, which we can hear in all his music, but especially in hisopera Leonara, started here as hewas exposed to touring companies. From Europe in 1846 to 1852, he dispatchedopinions on culture and politics as correspondent for newspapers inPhiladelphia and New York City. Back in New York working for the Tribune, he gave a series of highlypublicized and admired lectures on the history of music, riveting his audienceswith his encyclopedic knowledge. His early death at 51, apparent1y fromtuberculosis accelerated by exhaustion, elicited tributes from across the land.
Fry's music, whenit was heard, was well liked Santa Claus andThe Breaking Heart were playeddozens of times by the Jullien Orchestra, which championed his music on itstour of America Leonora triumphedin Philadelphia in 1845 and New York in 1858 Even critics who took issue withhis outspoken theories and insistent drum-beating for American music lauded hisgifts as a composer.
Turning to thefirst 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 asymphony we might term a fantasy or overture, but by any name it remains atight1y constructed drama full of heady drawing-room romanticism. Fry called it'the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, withunbroken continuity', and he was doubtless correct He composed it for theunsurpassed Jullien soloists, their technique showing in very high passages forthe 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 newlyinvented saxophone.
Fry's meticulouslyfollowed 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 louddiscords as some of the angels fall away in anger, but harmonious triumphconcludes the section. Now a Christmas Eve party. reunited family, dancing, andgeneral frivolity are depicted in pell-mell joy An impending snowstorm arrivesin the brass, but the dancing resumes, quieter this time as the party-goersleave for home. As sleep descends, Fry employs one of his favorite devices, thesetting of text to instrumental declamation. We hear The Lord's Prayer in syllabiccadence on the upper strings, followed by 'Rock-a-by baby' on the sopranosaxophone. Muted strings even mimic the baby's breathing. The snowstorm againcomes 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 depressingscene shifts as Santa Claus enters, with the voice of the high bassoon, here inhis horse-drawn sleigh Down the chimney he slides with flutes accompanying;plucked strings signify the clicking of toys being dropped into stockings Thechildren still sleep Santa leaves, the sound of hooves and bells receding intothe distance.
Up in the sky,extremely high violins portray a chorus of angels singing the familiar Adeste fideles. The sun rises on ChristmasDay. The house awakens to the sounds of 'Get up!' on the horn and 'LittleBo-peep' on the trumpets as the children play The beginning of the workreappears, as does the Adeste fideles, asSanta Claus closes in a hymn of praise.
Fry wrote his Overture to Macbeth in 1864, the last yearof his life We know of no performance of this, arguably Fry's best work, everIt is an exciting overture in the big romantic style, and fully deserves to beestablished in the repertoire. Fry again uses his instrumental textdeclamations, the most obvious right at the beginning, The words are from ActIV, but hang over the whole work as Fry telescopes the action' the trombonesand 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, thebrass choir salutes with the witches' first haunting words to him: 'All hailMacbeth!' And again, the trumpet sounds the ironic prophecy. 'Be bloody, bold'and resolute...for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,' The bewitchedtrombones punctuate the bloody course of Macbeth's deeds, and the overturerushes toward the final battle and his demise. The orchestra ends with itsproclamation 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 inscope as befits all good travelogue pieces, He held back nothing in hisstriving 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 nowknow that it was also called Adagio orAdagio sostenuto (conclusivelyproven by Joseph Harvey, in his 1999 dissertation for West Chester University,Pennsylvania). Listening to it now, we can see why it was so popular. Theoperatic influences on Fry are never far away the longing trombones, thewillowy strings, the bubbling coloratura flute solo all speak eloquently towhat he had absorbed so well. So expressive and teeming with melodrama and lovelytunes, The Breaking Heart takesus from idylls to melancholy and back The orchestra finds its voiceefficiently, the graceful melodies flowing without effort.
There is still muchof Fry's music that has never been heard, and this recording offers the firstpublic hearing ever of the Niagara Symphony andthe Overture to Macbeth. Now wecan judge for ourselves the gifts of this remarkable and groundbreakingcomposer and witness the very beginning of a nation's symphonic tradition.
Tony Rowe is MusicDirector of the Vassar Orchestra and Conductor of the Westchester ConservatoryOrchestra in New York. He was appointed Assistant Conductor at CambridgeUniversity by Philip Ledger, and later served as Assistant Conductor of theacclaimed Opera Theater at the Indiana University School of Music. He wasawarded First Prize by Libor Pesek at the Liverpool Conducting Competition in1988 and later that year received the Fulton Memorial Fellowship to study withSeiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. In 1991, he was a Prizewinnerat the prestigious Leeds Conductor,' Competition. Rowe was founder andconductor of the Oxford and Cambridge Chamber Orchestra and later served asMusic Director of the Gilbert and Sullivan Musical Theatre Company in New York.
In 1992, Tony Rowe was appoint