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Fry, William Henry (1813-1864)

Composer, Journalist, Lecturer, Music Critic

While William Henry Fry’s presence at Pfaff’s remains unconfirmed, he is listed among the many associates of Ada Clare, the “Queen of Bohemia” (Rawson). A native of Philadelphia, Fry was born into a prominent native American family to parents William and Anne (nee Fleeson) Fry. His father was the publisher of the National Gazette, and his mother was the granddaughter of Judge Plunkett Fleeson. Having displayed musical talent at an early age, Fry taught himself to play the piano after listening to his older brother's piano lessons. After this remarkable feat, Fry was placed under the musical instruction of top teachers, including Paris Conservatory graduate Leopold Meignen, and later graduated from Mt. St. Mary’s College in Emmettsburg, MD. Fry wrote his first overture at the age of fourteen, and six years later the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society performed another of his pieces (Cole).

Fry soon extended his creative talents into the world of opera. His first opera, Leonora, was written by his brother Joseph Reese Fry and "is known as the first publicly performed grand opera written by a native American." Presented on June 4, 1845, it is based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons (1838) (Cole). Max Maretzek notes that the opera, which was produced on January 20, 1858 in an Italian-translation revival in New York, "made a very favorful impression" (Maretzek 41). Fry experimented with various musical forms, but is best known for his four symphonies: The Breaking Heart, A Day in the Country, Santa Claus, or the Christmas Symphony, and Childe Harold, which were performed in New York in 1853 (Cole).

Despite his great talent, Fry treated music as a hobby rather than as a career. In 1836, he began working as a journalist for his father at the National Gazette shortly after Robert Walsh left the publication. In 1844, he left the Gazette to become editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Fry also spent several years in Europe, where he worked as a correspondent for the Ledger, the New York Tribune and other papers. After returning to New York in 1852, he took the position of music editor at the Tribune (Odell). Wilson writes that “as a musical reviewer he was a determined, honest partisan, an acute analyst, and trenchant writer” (558). While working as a journalist, Fry wrote music for the Stabat Mater (1855), a medieval sacred text, and for an opera based on the writings of Victor Hugo for which his brother Joseph wrote the libretto, titled Notre Dame de Paris (1863).

Fry was also a prolific lecturer, supportive of the American music scene and firmly anti-slavery (Personne 10 Mar. 1860). Lause notes that he turned up regularly at “labor and socialist meetings” (59). Thomas Butler Gunn writes of going to see his lecture on “the City of New York” in 1859. Although Frank Wood, House, and Thompson, publisher of Vanity Fair, were in attendance, Gunn found the speech to be “digressive, jerky, and not very satisfactory” (11.176-177). Wilson describes him as “an occasional political speaker, a lecturer on topics of the day, and altogether an accomplished man,” noting that he gave ten lectures in 1853 on the history of music (558). Complete with “musical illustrations supplied by a large orchestra, chorus, band, and an assortment of vocal soloists,” these lectures were meant “to encompass nothing less than the entire realm of music.” Despite enthusiastic puffery from the press, the lectures were monetarily unsuccessful, possibly due to their elevated level of musical discourse. Lawrence views the epic undertaking as Fry’s attempt to both garner support for American music and to feed “an insatiable hunger to be acclaimed the Messiah of American Music,” describing him as “brilliant, but erratic” (382-383).

Fry is remembered more for his status as the "first successful American opera composer" than for his flare or innovation. The operas themselves were not especially groundbreaking. They "contained ingratiating melodies" but lacked "dramatic force" (Cole). Despite popularity with the public, Fry did not gain a great deal of critical or pecuniary success. Nevertheless, "his fluent pen and ready speech made him a power in furthering American music.” Fry was in poor health toward the end of his life, possibly due to consumption. Bedridden for the final two years of his life, Fry reportedly asked for a telephone to the nearby New York Academy of Music and would listen to the operas with the telephone in one hand, the libretto in the other, and photographs of the performers at the foot of his bed (Wilson 558). He died in Santa Cruz, West Indies at the age of 51 (Cole).