George Frederick Bristow’s Symphony No. 4, Arcadian
Notes by TŌN oboist JJ Silvey
Subverting European Eminence
“How are Americans to win their way in composition unless their compositions are played?” This retort to critic Richard Storrs Willis by William Henry Fry, one of the earliest known American symphonists, would precipitate a public argument between the two men about the virtues of American versus European orchestral music, played out on the pages of a Boston circular. In his zeal to indict the American predilection for European music, Fry publicly praised the composition skills of George Frederick Bristow—then concertmaster of the Philharmonic Society of New York—and challenged the lack of esteem Bristow’s output was accorded by his own orchestra. The media circus, galvanizing Bristow’s resentment for the vogue of American institutions disregarding American music, led to his resignation from the Philharmonic Society. Like Fry, Bristow believed fervently in the cause of subverting European eminence in the American musical sphere.
An Undercurrent of Transcendentalism
Composed in 1872, Bristow’s Arcadian Symphony is perhaps his most fully realized effort at synthesizing the European musical conventions of the day with a uniquely American melodic poignancy. In listening to the piece, one readily detects the influence of German luminaries. Despite the music’s structural familiarity, there is a palpable undercurrent of transcendentalism. The symphony is grand in scale, much of the material having been borrowed from The Pioneer, Bristow’s cantata depicting the lives of westward-bound settlers.
The first movement begins with an affecting viola solo. The movement is comparable in length to the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, and the similarities between the two works don’t end there. Frequent use of hemiola, tutti chordal hits, and carefully paced textural contrasts all point to a clear Beethovenian influence. A tranquil horn solo opens the second movement, soon giving way to a low brass iteration in which Bristow quotes a theme by Thomas Tallis. This prayerful moment evokes noble simplicity, lending local color to a movement otherwise marked by sophisticated lyrical development and lush chromaticism. The third movement alternates a scherzando woodwind theme with bombastic chromatic interjections, both of which are interrupted before long by a steadying brass melody. After this reprieve, the scherzando theme increases in volume and intensity, bolstered by greater orchestral forces and the deployment of more complex counterpoint. The fourth movement is richly varied in texture and character. The exuberant opening undergoes cleverly executed mood shifts, lending the movement tremendous interest and dynamism.