Penn Library Department of Special Collections

William Penn

Keffer Collection of Sheet Music,
ca. 1790-1895

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Philadelphia Composers: William Henry Fry (1813-1864)

Portrait of William Henry Fry
William Henry Fry


William Henry Fry, composer and music critic, was born in Philadelphia. Fry's father, William Fry, was the publisher of the National Gazette in Philadelphia. Fry senior instilled in his sons, Joseph, Edward, Charles, and William, abiding interests in the arts and politics. William Henry Fry graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1830 and was later admitted to the bar.

Fry began composing at an early age and studied music with Leopold Meignen, among other local musicians. By the age of twenty Fry had composed four overtures. The fourth of these overtures was performed in 1833 by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society. Fry became secretary of the organization in 1836.

In 1827 fourteen-year old William Henry Fry attended performances in Philadelphia of the French Opera Company from New Orleans. This was presumably his first exposure to opera and it left a lasting impression. Fry would go on to compose four operas, beginning in 1838 with Christians and Pagans, which was never completed. In 1841 Fry composed Aurelia the Vestal to a libretto by his brother Joseph R. Fry. The opera was never produced during Fry's lifetime.

Fry is perhaps most renowned for his third opera, Leonora. He composed this work in 1845 to a libretto by Joseph R. Fry based on The Lady of Lyons by Bulwer-Lyttton. Leonora received its premiere on June 4, 1845 at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in a performance by the Sequin opera troupe, conducted by Leopold Meignen. It was successful enough to receive a run of twelve performances. This is often cited as being the first public performance of a grand opera by an American-born composer. Fry revised Leonora as Giulio e Leonora for performances by an Italian opera company at the Academy of Music in New York in March 1858. The opera received mixed reviews from critics and was only performed two times.

The final opera composed by Fry was Notre Dame de Paris, or Esmeralda, completed in 1863. Once again Fry turned to his brother Joseph to supply the libretto. It was performed seven times in May 1864 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, conducted by Theodore Thomas. After the performances in Philadelphia the opera was also produced in New York.

Fry also composed music in other genres, including four programmatic symphonies with descriptive titles: Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony, Childe Harold, The Breaking Heart, and A Day in the Country. All four of these works were performed by Louis Antoine Jullien and his orchestra during their tour of the United States in 1853-1854. Fry also wrote sacred choral works, including an oratorio, Stabat Mater in 1855, and Mass in E-flat, completed only nine days before his death in 1864.

As important as William Henry Fry was for his musical output, he was even more influential in his role as music critic. As noted previously, Fry's father was the publisher of the National Gazette in Philadelphia. Fry covered theater, music, and art for his father's newspaper as a youth. In 1844 he became an editor at the Philadelphia Ledger. By 1849 Fry was the Euorpean correspondent for the New York Tribune. He lived in Paris for three years where he was able to absorb the cultural events of that city.

Upon his return to New York in 1852, Fry became the music critic at the Tribune, the first such position at an American daily newspaper. He also began a series of ten lectures that ran from 1852 to 1853 about the history and language of music. These lectures included musical illustrations performed by assisting musicians, including the Philharmonic orchestra and the Harmonic Society Chorus, conducted by George F. Bristow, and members of the Italian Opera Company. Fry lost money on this venture but found an additional podium from which to voice his views. One of the most significant of Fry's arguments was that American composers must find their own voice, free of European influences. At the final lecture in the series, Fry made the following statement:

Until this Declaration in Art shall be made--until American composers shall discard their foreign liveries and found an American school--and until the American public shall learn to support American artists, Art will not become indigenous to this country, but will only exist as a feeble exotic, and we shall continue to be provincial in Art. 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.


Selections from William Henry Fry's Opera, Leonora, in the Collection

Item No.TitleImprintPlate No.Illustration
Box 10
no. 54
Music from Leonora Philadelphia : E. Ferrett, 1845 None None
Box 10
no. 56
Oh Fortune! In Thy Frown ; Ah! Canst Thou Bid Me Smother? : aria[s] from Fry's grand opera, Leonora : sung by Mr. Frazer : arranged with a piano forte accompaniment
p. 21-30
Philadelphia : E. Ferrett, 1845 None None
Box 10
no. 57
Quadrilles from Fry's Grand Opera Leonora New York : E. Ferrett, 1845 None None
Box 10
no. 57
Selections from Fry's Grand Opera Leonora. Part I : Return to Me, Ah! Brother Dear : sung by Miss Ince ; Ah! Doomed Maiden : sung by Mr. Sequin ; Grant Me One Only Hour : sung by Mr. Frazer Philadelphia : E. Ferrett, 1845 None None
Box 10
no. 55
Selections from Fry's Grand Opera Leonora. Part II : My Every Thought : cavatina sung by Mrs. Sequin Philadelphia : E. Ferrett, 1845 None None


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