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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

While the United States produced notable choral composers even before independence, American orchestral music got a late start. Until the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of orchestral concerts were one-off events, played by ad-hoc ensembles put together for the occasion. It was not until 1805 that the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston began to present the nation's first regular orchestral concert series (which lasted until 1820). Until Beethoven's 1st Symphony was played in Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1813, no American orchestra had performed a symphony in its entirety. The earliest known piece for orchestra by an American composer, Anthony Heinrich's concert overture Pushmataha, only appeared in 1831.

The modern tradition of American orchestral music began in 1842 with the founding of the nation's second-ever professional orchestra and its oldest continuously-running orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. This was where George Bristow (1825-1898) got his start; he played in the New York Philharmonic for its first three-and-a-half decades before resigning to focus on composing, and became its second-ever concertmaster in 1850. Bristow was a composer himself, and was one of the early pioneers of American orchestral composition. His first symphony, believed to have been completed between 1846 and 1848, was probably the first symphony composed by an American, though it would not be performed until mcuh later.

Ironically, Bristow's big break as a composer came because the New York Philharmonic's music directors largely refused to play music by American composers. In 1853, after a newspaper critic savaged the first symphony of a fellow American composer, William Henry Fry, Fry shot back, "How are Americans to win their way in composition unless their compositions are played?" Fry then named Bristow as a talented American who was being unfairly treated by his own orchestra. Bristow, suddenly caught in the midst of controversy, resigned from the Philharmonic and joined a French orchestra that was then touring the United States. Its director, impressed by Bristow's second symphony which had been completed that year, brought it back to Europe -- and so George Bristow, an American symphonist ignored in his own country, received his first orchestral performances in France and received standing ovations. The New York Philharmonic evidently had second thoughts, Bristow returned to New York a year later and resumed his position as concertmaster, and the orchestra played his music on a number of occasions thereafter.

This week's piece, Bristow's third symphony, was completed in 1859, several years after the composer's return to New York. This symphony was one of the pieces marking a shift in Bristow's style, from his Schubert-like early works toward unrestrained Romanticism. An ocean removed from Schumann and Brahms, he was simultaneously moving in the same direction. Like other early American orchestral composers, Bristow had a penchant for writing programmatic music, and so the two middle movements of this symphony, despite following common symphonic forms, have evocative subtitles: "Nocturno" for the slow movement and "The Butterfly's Frolic" for the scherzo.

Interestingly, Bristow was far ahead of his time in writing an elaborate harp part into a symphony (e.g. 2:36 of 1st movement). At the time, harps had been used in opera and ballet, but C├ęsar Franck's use of a harp in his symphony nearly three decades later was seen as nothing short of revolutionary!

1st movement

2nd movement

3rd movement

4th movement

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