Finding the Lost Symphonies of Philadelphia Composer William Henry Fry

fryEvery textbook on American music mentions the importance of William Henry Fry (1813-1864), some even devote whole chapters to him.  In these texts, however, the emphasis on Fry has been as a critic and an out-spoken champion of American music rather than as a composer.  This is for a good reason.  Fry was a widely read, prolific, and influential writer.  Because of his position as an editor and music critic for the New York Tribune, the most powerful newspaper in the country at the time, Fry’s columns were read as far north as Boston and as far west as Chicago.  His articles were also copied by many musical journals including Dwight’s Journal of Music, The Musical Review and Choral Advocate, and The Musical World and New York Musical Times.

Fry’s musical credentials were also impressive.  In fact, it was Fry’s musical background that gave his articles their authority.  Fry considered himself primarily an opera composer.  He composed three operas, one of which, Leonora (1845), was the first “grand opera” by an American to be performed in America.  But, he also composed seven symphonies, at least one string quartet, a Mass, an oratorio, a march for band, and several choruses and solo songs.

Despite these accomplishments, little is known about Fry’s music today.  While there is a biography on Fry, two dissertations, and several articles, there are no musical editions of his works, most of which still exist in manuscript form.  Therefore, much of what has been written in the textbooks about Fry’s music has either come from Fry’s writings or been based on contemporary accounts of performances.

The least studied area of Fry’s repertoire has been his symphonic works, which were by far his most popular and widely heard compositions.  One of the reasons for this discrepancy is that three of Fry’s four most popular symphonies were believed to be lost.  In 1865, a year after Fry’s death, Edward P. Fry presented his brother’s musical works to The Library Company of Philadelphia.  Eighty-one years later, Fry’s biographer, William Treat Upton, cataloged those works.  He noted that three symphonies were missing from the collection:  A Day in the Country, The Breaking Heart, and Grand Symphony—Childe Harold.  While Upton speculated that the single Adagio movement found in the collection “may possibly prove to be the “Adagio” from the Symphony The Breaking Heart,” he concluded that it seemed “rather doubtful.”

The “Adagio” to which Upton was referring is an enigmatic piece known as Adagio Sostenuto.  A note in the score of this work, initialed “E. P. F.” and dated May 1865, speculates that the manuscript “appears to be a full score in W. H. Fry’s hand writing [sic] of some overture composed by him and a copy by a copyist of the same piece . . . Quere? [sic] Is this The Breaking Heart?”  Despite Edward Fry’s suspicions, William Henry Fry’s biographer, William Treat Upton, concluded that the work could not be the missing symphony because it only generally matches other works composed during that period.

According to Upton, Adagio Sostenuto

might seem to belong among Fry’s earlier works, (The Breaking Heart was composed in 1852), careful study of its details points in another direction.  It was only in his later works that Fry discovered the potentialities of the intervals of the major and minor ninth which he exploits so successfully in Notre Dame (composed in 1862-63).  Before this he had been long preoccupied with the interval of the sixth (major and minor), an all absorbing interest which reached its climax in the revision of Leonora in 1858, only to be replaced in Notre Dame by a similar obsession with the interval of the ninth.  This would seem to suggest that the Adagio, with its emphasis on the interval of the sixth, might be tentatively dated as about 1858—rather than either 1852 or 1863.

Upton also cited two examples from Adagio Sostenuto that paralleled Fry’s revisions of Leonora, completed in 1858:

Then, too, the long elaborate cadenza-like flute passage in even thirty-second notes set against the main theme exactly parallels a passage in the new portion of Act IV of Leonora (1858).  Not only that, but at its close Fry introduces the identical effect produced in this same new portion of Leonora, by plunging the whole orchestra from 12/8 time (or 9/8 as the case may be) into a vigorous climactic measure in 6/4 time with its sturdy sequence of six highly percussive quarter notes.

Upton ends his argument by claiming that Adagio Sostenuto “does not fit the contemporary description of that work as given in Dwight’s Journal for February 4, 1854.”  However, Fry’s lectures of 1852-53 provide evidence that contradicts these assertions and confirms Edward Fry’s suspicions about the identity of The Breaking Heart.

Adagio Sostenuto and Cantabile Adagio Molto

Among Fry’s compositions in The Library Company of Philadelphia are the illustrations and various musical selections from his lectures delivered in the winter of 1852-53, but neither A Day in the Country nor The Breaking Heart are among them.  The collection does, however, include a set of orchestral parts from the first lecture at which these works were performed.  These parts include three distinct musical selections identified by numbers—1, 3, and 5—and a fourth by a tempo indication, Cantabile Adagio Molto.  It is also identified as “No. 4” in pencil in the cello and bass part.  Half of the orchestral parts represented in the lecture notes contain the example Cantabile Adagio Molto including the strings, cornet, and timpani—enough to reconstruct the major portions of the piece.

Even though they do not contain titles, the numbered compositions can easily be identified using a contemporary account of the first lecture in The New York Daily Tribune on 1 December 1852.   Selection 1 consists of an opening chord labeled “and there was light” which was most likely used to represent the “universal presence of Music in Nature,” as described in the Tribune.  This is immediately followed by the “Star Spangled Banner” (also number 1), which was used to illustrate the major chord.  Selection 2, not represented in the orchestral parts, is represented by a score.  It consists of short groupings of various instruments and was used as an introduction to musical sounds.  Selection 3 is clearly the mixed chorus “Laurels Twined Around the Warrior’s Brow,” from Fry’s Aurelia the Vestal, which was used to illustrate the chromatic scale and the minor mode.  Selection 5, a men’s chorus in 6/8 meter, “Each Merry Moss Trooper Mounted His Steed” illustrated compound meter.  This piece was paired with an example in common meter the newly composed A Day in the Country.  Because of its placement adjacent to the Merry Moss chorus, it is conceivable that Cantabile Adagio Molto could be either A Day in the Country or The Breaking Heart, which was used to represent the “varieties of musical quantity and expression.”  A recent discovery, however, narrows the choice.

After being lost for close to 125 years, a manuscript of A Day in the Country was recently discovered in Theodore Thomas’s personal orchestral collection by Brenda Nelson-Strauss, the director of the Rosenthal Archives at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  This discovery occurred when the archives were being prepared for a move to a more modern facility.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kile Smith of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at The Free Library of Philadelphia for relaying this valuable information to me and for putting me in contact with Brenda Nelson-Strauss, who was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the work for my study.

The last known performance of A Day in the Country occurred in 1876 when Theodore Thomas conducted it at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Thomas performed the work at its premiere twenty-four years earlier as a member of the violin section at the first lecture on 30 November 1852.  Later, Thomas played the work many times as a member of Louis Jullien’s orchestra.  When and where Thomas actually acquired the work is not yet known.  It is possible that The Library Company of Philadelphia, who, as previously mentioned, received most of Fry’s works after his death, loaned A Day in the Country to Thomas for the Centennial performance.  Unfortunately, it is not known whether the work was part of the original collection, as the accessioning papers have not been found.

It does not take long to determine that the work in question, Cantabile Adagio Molto, is not the newly found A Day in the Country, but rather the elusive Adagio Sostenuto, the work Edward Fry believed to be The Breaking Heart.  While there are various measures which are shortened and combined and some octave shifts, all the major themes, keys, harmonies, and meter changes are present and in the same order as in Adagio Sostenuto.

Adagio Sostenuto and The Breaking Heart

Judging by the striking similarities and differences, it is clear that Cantabile Adagio Molto is an earlier version of Adagio Sostenuto.  It is also clear that The Breaking Heart was performed at the first lecture.  But are these works one in the same?  The change in meter, thinning texture, and the fade in the dynamic level in the last five bars of Adagio Sostenuto seems to indicate that this movement does not stand on its own.  There are various accounts of performances of a separate “Adagio” from Fry’s symphony The Breaking Heart, such as at the “Musical Congress of 1854” at Metropolitan Hall in New York.  But, we know from Fry’s writings that he was not an advocate of the traditional multi-movement symphonic framework.  Fry made this clear in the infamous debates forged in the pages of The Musical World and New York Musical Times between himself and Richard Storrs Willis.

By February of 1854, Fry had composed three symphonies— none of which contain autonomous movements.  In one of Fry’s infamous verbal battles, this one with the New York Philharmonic Society, Fry went as far as offering to compose a symphony specifically in four movements if the Philharmonic would agree to perform it, suggesting he had not written one up to that time.  Speaking of a performance of The Breaking Heart in Boston, Fry wrote in The Musical World and New York Musical Times:  “I know my symphony in one slow movement, excited in Boston as profound a sensation as any instrumental piece presented by M. Jullien.”  We know from Dwight’s response that this symphony “in one slow movement” was The Breaking Heart.

Why, then, are there continuous references to an “Adagio” from The Breaking Heart?  It is plausible that the “Adagio” label was simply misidentified on Jullien’s program in November of 1853.  Jullien developed a unique philosophy in crafting his programs.  This philosophy mixed a lighter fare of galops, waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles with more substantial works such as overtures, symphonies, and instrumental solos.  As was shown by Eugene Frey, this mixture was not concocted haphazardly; it adhered to a strict formula.  The program began with an overture that was immediately followed by a quadrille by Jullien.  Then came a movement from a well-known symphony, an aria from an opera, and dance piece.  An instrumental solo and another quadrille led up to the intermission.  When Jullien first performed The Breaking Heart in Boston, it appeared on the program in the third slot, the position typically reserved for single movements from well-known symphonies.   Thus, given Jullien’s strict adherence to his formula (and the expectations of his audience), it is understandable why Fry’s one-movement symphony would be labeled “Adagio” from the “dramatic symphony” The Breaking Heart, as it was in November of 1853.

Despite Upton’s claim, Fry’s in-depth description of The Breaking Heart in the 4 February 1854 issue of the Dwight’s Journal of Music provides the decisive link between these two works.  In this discussion, Fry describes a key relationship that is directly represented in Adagio Sostenuto:

The Breaking Heart . . . begins in seven flats before it gets into four, the key,—but that is to express the mysticism of the place with the uncertain wandering of the sufferer.  But fairly afloat, the classical modulations are followed . . . Its Agnus dei, is in three flats, the classical relation to four—and then we get back to A flat by classical recurrence—and the piece, after several transitions, ends on the key note.

If one had to place the opening chord of Adagio Sostenuto within a key, it is true that seven flats would be the only one that could accommodate the F-flats (see musical example 1).  However, this chord is best described as a flat-VI in the key of A-flat major, the key in which it is written.  After resolving, a dominant prolongation occurs which finally settles in the tonic key, A-flat major, in measure nine, as Fry describes.  The Agnus Dei in E-flat major described by Fry, refers to his programmatic explanation for the work.  In the 21 January 1854 issue of The Musical World and New York Musical Times, Fry wrote that

The Breaking Heart represents a tragedy in a cathedral—that materialized home of eternity—where the senses of the neophyte in religion or architecture, are appalled—subdued by such colossal evidence of the grandeur of human genius.  I shall never forget my sensations in visiting for the first time Cologne Cathedral, where the forest is wreaked upon stone, the vault of heaven idealized in dizzy arches—the sunset and clouds hurled into the circular windows, and all breathing a Faith which no longer can evolve such an idea.  Of course when I take an educated, delicately reared young lady—not simply a young woman—and put her to die of love and melancholy in such a cathedral—when I arrest her ear by an Angus Dei [sic] (Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world!) as played on the organ poetised [sic],—for such I consider the heroic plaints and thunders of the mighty brass instruments as I have treated them in the orchestra, where the human breath inspires the sound, and not a pair of bellows as the organ—when I write as has never been done before, the double elegy of violoncellos in deepest double octaves, fortified by Bottesini’s [the virtuoso bass player in Jullien’s orchestra] bass playing the melody and not with the other basses. . .

It seems more than likely that the hymn-like theme in E-flat major presented in mm. 23 to 31 by the brass is the one described here (see musical example 2).  After a deceptive cadence (m. 31) and a transition (mm. 31 to 37), the piece expands to full orchestra where the “double elegy” of violoncellos and basses in “deepest double octaves” supports a rousing rendition of the second theme (see musical example 3).  This section is followed by a retransition, which leads to a return of theme one in the key of E major, followed immediately by a modulation back to A-flat major through the dominant, the “classical recurrence” of the tonic key described by Fry.
In the same article, Fry describes the final measures of The Breaking Heart:

It is true its last notes are not preceded by the dominant chord or the cadence plagale [sic]—but by an enharmonic transition, leading to the final chord on A flat, with the tender third C above;—but we must remember the symphony began with a breaking heart—seeking God—in anguish and mysticism—and so we end, the third representing Love—for it is Love’s note—which did not fail in death.

The “enharmonic transition” described by Fry in the closing measures is also represented in Adagio Sostenuto.  It is not, however, an enharmonic transition in the modern sense, Fry’s understanding was somewhat different.  To Fry, any chord that functioned differently than the way it was spelled constituted an enharmonic transition.  Here, Fry is trying to describe the final chord progression or cadence of the work—using terms like “plagal” and  “authentic” cadence.  He is not describing a transitional passage.  Adagio Sostenuto ends just as Fry describes, with a non-traditional penultimate chord, a mediant in first inversion.  This leads to the final sonority on the tonic with the third on top (see musical example 4).

Other contemporary accounts of The Breaking Heart also help confirm its identity.  Willis, one of Fry’s harshest critics, stated in his review of Fry’s first three symphonies:

The Breaking Heart . . . shows an unquestionable improvement upon the ‘Day in the Country’ . . . The parts move more freely, the melodies are of a broader style, and the various departments of the orchestra are more dexterously called into use.  We like much this symphony.  There is warm feeling in it, and the theme expresses emotions which music is perhaps better able to express than poetry.

It is not difficult to locate the items described by Willis in Adagio Sostenuto.  The mere title of the work, Sostenuto, evokes a broad style.  Both the first and second themes are in a sustained, lyrical style—especially the first theme presented in the violins, which contains many tied notes and dotted-half notes.  The 12/8 meter adds to this sustained quality—specifically when compared directly with a piece in common meter like the opening of A Day in the Country.  And surely the statement of the hymn-like second theme in the four-part horns could convey the “warm feeling” described by Willis.  A contemporary account of a performance of The Breaking Heart by Jullien’s orchestra in New York provides the final clue for the identity of Adagio Sostenuto.

On these two evenings there was opportunity to give careful hearing of some of Fry’s music.  An Adagio pleased me much . . . some new effects were striking—for instance, an oboe solo with a sort of obbligato arpeggio (if that be a proper term) accompaniment by a flute running up and down through some three octaves. . . A deep, delicious melancholy seemed rather the character of the piece, than the powerful anguish and struggle indicated by its title, The Breaking Heart.

The oboe solo with obbligato flute described here is undoubtedly the same one in mm. 71-78 of Adagio Sostenuto (see musical example 5).  Without hesitation, Edward Fry’s one-hundred and thirty-five year old question can finally be answered in the affirmative:  Adagio Sostenuto is Fry’s lost symphony The Breaking Heart.

The events surrounding the composition and performance of The Breaking Heart and A Day in the Country are the events that plunged Fry into the textbooks of American Music.  They were the most performed of Fry’s symphonies.  Both had their premiers and were played at Fry’s infamous lecture series on music in 1852-53.  And, Jullien’s orchestra played both numerous times throughout the United States. Thus, they were, perhaps, the first symphonies by an American to achieve national exposure and success, making Fry the most performed—and the most famous—American symphonic composer of the mid-nineteenth century.

With the identification of these symphonies and the recently released first recording of three of Fry’s Symphonies on the NAXOS label, it is hoped that a reevaluation of Fry’s music can now take place.  And, that this process will be done by first placing our modern presumptions to the side so that we may view them, without bias, within their historical framework.  For it seems clear that this is where their significance lies.  When Theodore chose to play A Day in the Country at the Centennial Celebration of 1876 in Philadelphia, almost twenty-five years after his first encounter with the work, he did so not because of the symphony’s musical importance but because of its historical importance and unquestionable American character.  In the end, the reevaluation process will lead not only to a better understanding of Fry’s works, but to a more complete understanding of Fry’s principle place in the annals of American music:  that of the outspoken advocate and critic.


Joe Harvey has a Master of Arts in Music History from West Chester University, PA.  This article is part of original research done for his thesis:  Rethinking William Henry Fry:  Uncovering Two Lost Symphonies