On June 4, 1845, the first-ever grand opera written by an American composer graced the stage of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theater. Composer William Henry Fry and his librettist brother Joseph R. Fry — two Philly natives — had completed Leonora earlier that year.
The opera, like much of William Fry’s work, attracted mixed reviews at the time and continues to do so to this day. But instead of securing a spot among the European greats, Fry was interested in cultivating an American musical tradition that embodied the young nation’s spirit.
In order for a nation to have its own music, however, its citizens had to compose. By undertaking an original grand opera, Fry ultimately wanted to inspire other 19th-century U.S. composers to find their own musical voices rather than emulate those from the other side of the Atlantic.
As crowds thronged the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 2 and 3 for Made in America — a festival designed in part to celebrate the role of music in American life — and Opera Philadelphia gears up for its inaugural 2017 festival this month, Fry would likely have felt proud of Philly’s continuing role as a promoter of American music.
Fry was born on Aug. 10, 1813 (his brother Joseph was born a year earlier). His parents were wealthy Philadelphians. William Fry Sr. was the publisher of the National Gazette and Literary Register, and his wife Anne was a granddaughter of the prominent Judge Plunkett Fleeson.
The young Fry possessed a strong aptitude for both music and writing from an early age.
He learned to play piano by listening in on his brother’s lessons from an adjoining room, imitating the sounds he heard on his own time. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1830. Just three years later, the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society performed one of his overtures. In 1836, at the young age of 23, he became the society’s secretary.
His musical career ran parallel (through was arguably secondary) to his career as a music critic. In 1836, Fry began covering Philadelphia’s music scene for his father’s National Gazette. He was briefly an editor for the Philadelphia Ledger before becoming a European correspondent for the New York Tribune.
After residing in Paris for three years, he returned to the United States and at the Tribune became the nation’s first-ever resident music critic at a major U.S. publication.
In this role, Fry lobbied on behalf of American-made music. James Grant Wilson — an editor and encyclopedist — writes that, as a critic, Fry was “a determined, honest partisan, an acute analyst, and trenchant writer.”
The 20th-century American music historian Vera Brodsky Lawrence is slightly less forgiving in her depiction of Fry’s obsessiveness as a music writer, arguing that while he was “brilliant, but erratic,” he nonetheless had “an insatiable hunger to be acclaimed the Messiah of American Music.”
Whatever his motives, Fry took his crusade to the podium in the early 1850s, offering lectures on the importance of homegrown music. During one of these speaking engagements, Fry offered a clarion call for U.S. artists:
“The American composer should not allow the name of Beethoven, or Handel, or Mozart to prove an eternal bugbear to him, nor should he pay them reverence; he should only reverence his Art, and strike out manfully and independently into untrodden realms, just as his nature and inspirations may invite him, else he can never achieve lasting renown.” [sic]
In Fry’s eyes, a nation could self-actualize by developing a distinctly original music, thereby staking out its own cultural space on the global stage.
Unfortunately, American music’s first great (if somewhat self-aggrandizing) champion met a premature end. After two years of declining health, Fry passed away in the Virgin Islands in 1864 from consumption. He was 51.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org