If you listened to episode seven of Backstage Podcast, you heard a little bit about William Henry Fry. You may also remember that we predicted a blog post showcasing his music…

Consider this the fulfillment of that prophecy. Below you’ll find a bit of biography, plus some background to his opera Leonora. If you’re just here to listen to Leonora by William Henry Fry, scroll below–we’ve included links to some listening resources.

William Henry Fry Biography

Fry, one of four children, was born in the City of Brotherly Love in 1813. His father was the wealthy publisher of the Philadelphia-based National Gazette, and young William attended Mount St. Mary’s Academy in Maryland (now Mount St. Mary’s University).

He was a big fan of music, even as a small Fry (sorry, we had to), and he broke into the professional world as a music critic and journalist with his father’s paper. Even as a writer, he never lost sight of his true love–composition. 

Fry had beef with the American music scene though. You could say he was just out of touch with what regular people wanted (given his privileged station in life and such), or you could call him an elitist. The alternative, of course, would admit that he had legitimate concerns.

His issue had to do with the state of American opera. Most theater and opera productions came to the US by way of London in the mid 19th century, and the performances were trending towards a combination of singing and talking. Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t start making waves with their productions until the 1870s, but you could use their music as a point of reference here.

Fry viewed this intrusion of the spoken word into opera as a tragedy. He believed that opera should remain pure and unadulterated by the vulgarity of human words–it should glisten only with song and recitative. 

Yes, I’m being dramatic on purpose. 

As Fry once wrote, “There is no better reason why a tragic or serious singer should be required to speak on the stage, than a tragic actor to sing.”

The young journalist/composer/opera idealist was now on a mission–to improve America’s operatic life with a two-pronged attack. First, he had to write an opera that showcased the purity of style he craved, and secondly, he would launch a campaign to educate the American populace about music history and style, or as many people of the day referred to such issues, “music science.”

Fry used Italian Grand Opera as the blueprint to his opera (his would be the first Grand Opera written in the United States).

Composition and First Performance of Leonora by William Henry Fry

On June 10, 1845, four years after he stopped writing for the National Gazette to concentrate on opera, Fry’s Leonora premiered at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. One of his brothers wrote the libretto, another brother acted as the “hype man,” and as a whole, the Fry family paid the production costs. 

The Seguin opera troupe performed his work to perfection. The audience loved it. And while the opera didn’t enter the “regular opera repertoire,” it did receive more performances than most. 

Here’s the problem: critics hated it. Although critical opinions need to be taken with a grain of salt (yes, even our critical opinion of critical opinions…), a reporter from the New York Herald roasted the opera because it lacked originality. Unfortunately, the critic wasn’t wrong.

You’ll have to listen to episode 7 to learn more about the critical reaction, but the main complaint was that William Henry Fry’s Leonora sounded like an imitation of something else (namely Norma by Bellini). In fact, Fry intentionally tried to imitate every aspect of Italian Grand Opera style to perfection, and he wasn’t exactly trying to create something cutting-edge. His melodies, harmonic content, and plot must not have been interesting enough to win the critics over, though.

It also didn’t help that Fry was a music critic himself–naturally, he had rivals. After Leonora hit the stage, Fry said the following regarding criticism and praise for his work:

“This opera has been written according to the highest rules of art, and is to be judged by the severest criticisms of art. For your favors to myself personally, I thank you; for my opera I ask nothing; the dignity of art disdains all favors.”

The more we read about Fry’s writings and quotes, the more we came to understand why critics probably hated him. He took himself entirely too seriously, and he looked “down the nose” on America’s musical life as a whole. His words and writing come across as pompous. Yes, classical music lovers in America could have benefited from a proper understanding of musical style, but Fry was awfully arrogant about it.

Fry spent the years following Leonora staging public demonstrations, concerts, and lectures (like Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts) to try and educate the Americans about the “science” of proper art. He felt that if only people knew what “the highest forms of art” sounded like, they would appreciate them.

It was a lofty goal, and it sounds awfully similar to what classical musicians are still doing today–for better or worse.

Listen to Leonora by William Henry Fry

I usually embed videos, but I ran into a distinct problem with Leonora: nobody has recorded it. There’s still a way to hear it though (trigger warning–it’s not a very interesting opera to modern ears). Here’s how:

Option 1: visit the Leonora entry on imslp.org. Download the score and read through it or have fun imagining what it must have sounded like.

Option 2: Download the Peachnote App (for free). It plays through sheet music from IMSLP electronically as you look at the score.
Another resource for easily viewing the Leonora score is MusOpen.org.