- Bristow’s Symphony No. 2
Perhaps no nineteenth-century United States composer of classical works is more underrated than George Frederick Bristow (1825–1898). Several of his contemporaries—too many to name here—are the subjects of book-length biographies. He is not. His extensive compositional oeuvre includes five symphonies, an opera, an oratorio, two large cantatas, at least four concert overtures, and dozens of shorter works scored for various small ensembles or soloists. Yet only two of these, the Third Symphony and a piano miniature, are readily accessible on commercial recordings; a handful of others were released on LP albums that are no longer widely available. A critical edition of his oratorio Daniel appears in the Recent Researches in American Music series (vol. 34, ed. David Griggs-Janower [Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1999]), and a reprint of a published piano-vocal score to his opera Rip Van Winkle appears in the Earlier American Music series (vol. 25, ed. Steven Ledbetter [New York: Da Capo, 1991]). His symphonies, arguably his best works, remain essentially terra incognita for the greater musicological community, while his papers and music manuscripts reside at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The volume under consideration here, a critical edition of Bristow’s Second Symphony introduced by an outstanding monograph-length essay by Katherine Preston, vigorously challenges us to reassess our collective opinion of Bristow by offering a new interpretive perspective on his life, his music, and the roles played by each within the broader development of orchestral music in the United States. Preston’s introductory essay alone is worthy of extended commentary, for it not only describes the work’s genesis and musical characteristics, but also weaves an engaging and meticulously researched narrative about the forces animating United States orchestral music at midcentury. In sum, this volume is a much-needed and long overdue addition to our knowledge of orchestral music culture during the period.
Like many musicians of his generation born in the United States, Bristow followed multiple career paths: in addition to composing, he was an orchestral violinist, a piano soloist, an organist in area churches, a conductor, and an educator in New York’s public school system. His relatively long life, which more than fully encompassed that of Brahms, began in the Jacksonian Era, reached a midpoint during the Civil War, and concluded during the early Progressive Era. This roughly seventy-five-year period witnessed a seismic shift in the American public’s appreciation and support of classical music, and Bristow was at the epicenter—at least within the New York metropolitan area—for most of his life.
After opening with a concise account of Bristow’s professional career, Preston’s essay then moves to the broader cultural milieu of orchestral music in the United States at midcentury, along with its transatlantic connections to Europe. The period was defined by movement, she argues. Itinerant opera companies and touring orchestras (mostly imported from Europe) introduced the American public to a wide array of operatic and instrumental music repertories, while immigrant musicians intending to become permanent residents arrived in steady streams, especially after the European revolutions in 1848–49. These musicians were crucial in the establishment of permanent ensembles such as the New-York Philharmonic Society, in which Bristow played first violin for over three decades, and swelled the ranks of free-lancers available to perform in orchestras accompanying theatrical productions and choral societies. Preston explains, too, that programing trends among both touring and resident orchestras gradually shifted toward the coalescing...