George Frederick Bristow

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George Frederick Bristow

George Frederick Bristow (December 19, 1825 – December 13, 1898) was an American composer. He advocated American classical music, rather than favoring European pieces. He was famously involved in a related controversy involving William Henry Fry and the New York Philharmonic Society.

Life and career

Bristow was born into a musical family in Brooklyn, New York. His father, William, a well-respected conductor, pianist, and clarinetist, gave his son lessons in piano, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and violin. George joined the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic Society Orchestra in 1843 at the age of seventeen, and remained there until 1879. The New York Philharmonic's records indicate that he was concertmaster between 1850 and 1853.

In the 1850s, Bristow became conductor of two choral organizations, the New York Harmonic Society and the Mendelssohn Union (and later several church choirs). In 1854, he began his long career as a music educator in the public schools of New York.

Throughout his life, Bristow was a champion of American music and a nationalist in his choice of texts. The amount and quality of his choral music, although mostly ignored by Grove's, makes Bristow a historically important choral composer.


Bristow's compositional output is divided in three periods: his early years, during which most of the compositions are instrumental; the middle period beginning in 1852, during which he wrote more than forty works, several of them lengthy and imposing; and the late period, beginning in 1879 with Bristow's resignation from the New York Philharmonic. Of the 135 compositions listed in Rogers’ dissertation on Bristow's music, one-third are choral or vocal. Seven of his choral works are choral/orchestral pieces, and twenty-seven compositions are smaller pieces, most of which were composed for church choirs that he led. Both the short sacred works and the large choral/orchestral compositions are evenly divided between the middle and late periods.

Choral/orchestral works

Middle period

  • Symphony in D minor, "Jullien", Op. 24
  • Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 26
  • Opera, "Rip van Winkle", 1855.
  • Ode, op. 29, first performed 1856 (soprano solo, women's voices, and orchestra).
  • Praise to God, op. 31/33, 1860.
  • The Oratorio of Daniel, op. 42, 1866.
  • The Pioneer, A Grand Cantata, op. 49, 1872.
  • Symphony "Arcadian" 1872.

Late period

  • The Great Republic, op. 47, 1880.
  • Mass in C Major, op. 57, 1885.
  • Niagara Symphony. Op. 62, 1893.


As the handiwork of an American composer, The Oratorio of Daniel reflects the highest credit to our country in the realms of art, and there are few, if any, composers in Europe at the present day who are capable of writing anything equal to it.


[Daniel] is by far the most masterly work that an American composer has yet produced, and we judge it will rapidly make its way into the accepted repertory.... That it is a remarkable opus and destined to bring the author's name prominently into the list of those whom we delight to term ‘great living composers’ seems clear enough.


Several reviewers compared the work favorably to Mendelssohn's Elijah. Thirty years later the American Art Journal summed up opinion of this work in Bristow's obituary:

Bristow's oratorio of Daniel is unquestionably one of the most important compositions in this form yet produced by an American composer... From the production of this great work dates a new era in our musical history.


This evaluation gains added significance in light of the large number of popular, well-written works that were produced by Americans during the latter half of the nineteenth century: Horatio Parker's Hora novissima (1892) and Legend of St. Christopher (1897), John Knowles Paine's St. Peter (1872) as well as his Mass in D (1867–68), and Amy Beach's Mass in E-flat (1891).

Bristow's The Oratorio of Daniel has been published in full score form by A-R Editions in its "Recent Researches in American Music" series



  • Rip Van Winkle (Original, Musical, Comedy), Opera, Music by George F. Bristow; Musical Director: George F. Bristow September 27, 1855 – October 23, 1855
  • The Beggar's Opera [Revival, Musical, Drama, Opera], Musical Director: George F. Bristow September 14, 1855 – November 3, 1855
  • The Daughter of St. Mark [Original, Musical, Operetta], Musical Director: George F. Bristow June 18, 1855 – June 28, 1855
  • The Bohemian Girl [Revival, Musical, Comedy, Opera], Musical Director: George F. Bristow June 2, 1855 – November 3, 1855
  • A Queen of a Day [Original, Musical, Comedy, Opera], Musical Director: George F. Bristow June 2, 1855 – November 3, 1855


  1. The New York Herald, January 31, 1868.
  2. The World, December 30, 1867
  3. American Art Journal, December 17, 1898, p. 162

External links