Santa Claus – Christmas Symphony
Overture to Macbeth
The Breaking Heart
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2001
CD No: NAXOS 8.559057
This is a fascinating CD, one to delight students of American music and anyone looking for some unfamiliar orchestral scores that are both attractive and worthwhile. William Henry Fry was born in 1813 in Philadelphia. Dead aged 51, Fry had a short but busy and productive life – not only a composer, he was a music, art and political correspondent for several American newspapers and he also lectured on the history of music. You won’t be surprised to learn that, come his early demise through tuberculosis, he was exhausted!
Although the ’real’ voice of American music is a twentieth-century development, beginning with Ives and Copland, there was plenty of music written by native composers in the preceding century – George Chadwick, Horatio Parker (who taught Ives) and John Knowles Paine among them. Fry pre-dates the oldest of these, Paine, by a couple of decades. He was, I imagine, very sympathetic to French music. No doubt, given his music critic role, he would have heard many pieces, and, as a composer, would have been open to and influenced by a number of his contemporaries. Berlioz is aurally suggested (a bit of research finds Fry and Berlioz met), and Fry must also have had a liking for the lighter things of musical life, Offenbach for example. Fry’s French influence shifts the balance somewhat – the American composers who followed him tended to be more Germanic, often studying in Berlin or Leipzig. Of these, Chadwick is worth exploring, for his works, with their suggestions of Mendelssohn and Schumann, have much to recommend them.
The Santa Claus Symphony is a single movement, lasting here 26 minutes, that is a loosely constructed series of episodes, a story told by the orchestra, used here quite strikingly by Fry, who was largely self-taught. The Saviour is born to jubilant fanfares, then we move to a Christmas Eve Party. Among later ’events’ are The Lord’s Prayer syllabically set for strings, ’Rock-a-by baby’ is intoned by the saxophone (in 1853 Adolphe Sax’s instrument was just a few years old), then there’s a snowstorm (with the obligatory traveller who has lost his way) and, finally, good old Father Christmas turns up (whips and sleigh bells to the fore). He’s armed with presents, Christmas Day has arrived and all is well with the world. Musically, there’s a call to attention from the brass, a trumpet solo (French scoring for a Donizetti-type melody with a suggestion of Rossini’s humour), then solos not just for the saxophone but for clarinet, which initiates a delightful Gavotte, double bass (the traveller) and bassoon (Santa Claus). Fry’s imagination provides great entertainment, his tunes are catchy, his orchestration atmospheric, and the whole is a pleasing diversion.
Although – like a puppy – Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony isn’t just for Christmas, the other music on this CD, although shorter, has more substance. Macbeth, from Fry’s last year, is a splendidly dramatic concert overture, while Niagara, with its eleven timpani and effective ‘waterfall’ scoring, would have delighted Berlioz in its extravagance and impact. The Breaking Heart is a rather gooey concoction of waltz tunes, which will appeal to listeners with a sweet tooth; it’s worth getting to 5’55″ where something more soulful arrives and the remaining five minutes are utterly charming. Retaining Fry’s ‘French Connection’, anyone who likes Waldteufel’s music will love The Breaking Heart.
So, good stuff, and I wonder if Naxos have more Fry up its sleeve? Tony Rowe and the RSNO play Fry with sensitivity, power and a good humour, and the recording is excellent. A thoroughly enjoyable and enterprising CD.