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How Santa Claus Became a Slave Driver: The Work of Print Culture in a Nineteenth-Century Musical Controversy


The transnational character of the literate musical community in the United States created an environment in which language barriers, ideological biases, and other potential sources of misunderstanding caused print items to change shape quickly as they were transferred from one reader to the next. The aesthetic controversy between William Henry Fry and Richard Storrs Willis surrounding the 1853 premiere of Fry's Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony provides a rich case in point. The controversy at times seemed to draw from a parallel debate in Europe, often called “The War of the Romantics,” which concerned the future of symphonic composition and music's capacity for representation. At others, the controversy seemed to diverge from its European counterpart as central concepts were articulated in new intellectual contexts. The vagaries of print culture help explain these discrepancies. This article outlines the central arguments of the debate, situates them within their transatlantic contexts, and examines how print culture played a significant role in the controversy's unfolding as early as 1839, fifteen years before it took place. More broadly, it constructs a new framework for examining the function and meaning of nineteenth-century music periodicals by illustrating how an antislavery newspaper became an unlikely voice in a debate over program music.

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Theodore Thomas Collection, Rosenthal Archives, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
William Henry Fry Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia
The Albion (New York)
Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, OH)
Dwight's Journal of Music (Boston)
Harper's Weekly (New York)
The Knickerbocker (New York)
The Musical Magazine (Boston)
Musical World (London)
Musical World and Times (New York)
The National Era (Washington, D.C.)
New-York Daily Tribune
New-York Evening Post
New-York Musical Review and Choral Advocate
New-York Times
Watson's Art Journal
The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns. Boston: William V. Spencer, 1854.
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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
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