The beginnings of American concert music

The earliest American orchestras appear to have formed for a single concert. A little later, the larger cities saw the formation of rehearsal orchestras, where members got together to play through the symphonies of Haydn and similar music. Some of them presented occasional public performances.

Beginning in the 1820s, musicians in several cities attempted to establish permanent concert orchestras. Every one of them failed until the founding of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1842.

Shortly thereafter, Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Fry, and George Bristow attempted to establish a reputation as American composers of symphonic music and opera. They hoped that New York’s orchestra would give them an outlet.

The Philharmonic, on the other hand, dedicated itself to presenting the best music by the best masters. Heinrich, Fry, and Bristow could not pretend to qualify. Perhaps if they had not had to work so hard to gain performances, they would have eventually become better composers.

Heinrich wrote descriptive music with long titles like The Columbiad, or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons. His style superficially resembles Haydn and, to a lesser extent, Beethoven, although he never mastered development as they did.

His music exhibits chromatic melodies and harmonies, dance rhythms, unusual complexity and numerous quotations of patriotic and popular songs, including his own. His somewhat eccentric music proved to be more difficult than any American orchestra could handle, but he visited Europe three times, met Mendelssohn and other notable musicians, and had some of his pieces played to great acclaim.

Most of Fry’s orchestral works likewise bear descriptive titles. Most reference sources credit him as the first American composer of a grand opera, although I have proposed an earlier candidate.

Although Fry often used titles with American references, his music exhibits a thoroughly European style. He made his reputation less as a composer than as a journalist and critic. His tireless advocacy of American composers and complaints that American orchestras neglected them paved the way for the next generation of composers, including Edward MacDowell.

Bristow, the best trained of the three, likewise wrote on American themes. He used the story of Rip van Winkle for one of his operas, named his last symphony Niagara Symphony, and composed a concert overture named Columbus.

Stylistically, however, he too was thoroughly European and perhaps already a bit old-fashioned. While contemporary Germans divided into schools of  Brahms and Raff vs Wagner and  Liszt, Bristow clung to Mendelssohn as a model. He never quite mastered extended forms, although his melodies, harmonies, and orchestration displayed good imagination and craftsmanship.

Although modern audiences would probably not enjoy frequent performances of the music of any of these composers, I would welcome recordings. Their music can’t be any worse than, say, Zdenek Fibich or any number of other lesser European composers whose music is readily available.

As a trombonist, I would especially love to hear Bristow’s Second Symphony, “Jullien.” Two movements contain extended trombone solos, probably the first written for any symphony. Here is the one from the third movement:


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