Classics of American Romanticism Worth Revisiting

When did American classical music begin? Earlier than you might think. Long before Aaron Copland — and even Charles Ives — composers were looking to create a national voice. George Frederick Bristow and William Henry Fry were two such pioneers. Fry was the first native-born American to compose symphonic works.

His 1854 Niagara Symphony is really more of a tone poem. This twelve-minute piece effectively depicts the roiling waters of Niagra Falls. While the orchestral effects are there, the actual content struck me a little thin.

More successful, I think, is Bristow’s “Arcadian” Symphony. Bristow joined the fledgling New York Philharmonic in 1842 at age 17 as a violinist. He eventually became concertmaster.

Bristow was passionate about creating an American style of classical music. His goal was to create an art form that would be on par with the European repertoire he played with the New York Phil.

His symphony has a distinctively mid-19th Century American theme. It depicts the arrival of settlers to the New World, their exploration, conflict with Native Americans, and eventual taming of the new land.

From a 21st Century perspective, the program is problematic. And the Scherzo, “Indian War Dance and Attack by Indians” especially so. Bristow makes no attempt to recreate authentic Native American music. Rather, it’s a slightly exotic version of his Eurocentric style (just with more drums).

For those willing to accept the symphony as a product of its time, it’s worth a listen. Bristow channels Mendelssohn, and his orchestrations are clean and effective. He also lays out some clear-cut themes, with he develops throughout the work.

Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now give these works some solid performances. If some sections sound a little clunky, it’s the writing, not the playing. Highly recommended to anyone curious about the origins of America’s classical music tradition. It’s older than you might think.

Classics of American Romanticism
George Frederick Bristow: Symphony No. 4 “Arcadian”
William Henry Fry: Niagara Symphony
The Orchestra Now: Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge Records 9572

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