This image of Ritter is taken from A Hundred Years of Music in America... A Full and Reliable Summary of American Musical Effort as Displayed in the Personal History of Artists, Composers and Educators.  By W.S.B. Matthews.  (Chicago: G.L. Howe, 1889)


Frédéric Louis Ritter (1834-1891

Frédéric Louis Ritter was born in Strasbourg, France on 22 June 1834, and received his first musical education there. After studies in Paris with the composer and music historian Georges Kastner (who was also Ritter’s cousin), at the age of eighteen he was appointed Professor of Music at the Protestant Seminary of Fénéstrange, in Lorraine—close to the German border, just as was Ritter’s home region of Alsace (indeed, throughout his life, Ritter balanced his devotion to the Germanic tradition with his French training and upbringing). Just four years later, the restless young musician emigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati, where he founded the Caecilia choral society and the Philharmonic orchestral society. It should be noted that even the most detailed published biographical notices of Ritter’s career (such as W.S.B. Mathews’ A Hundred Years of Music in America [Chicago: G.L. Howe, 1889]: pp. 686-88) omit the fact that, when he came to the U.S., he transported a musical library which would have been notable for a collector at the end of his career; for a 23-year-old man it was nothing short of extraordinary. While a large number of French and German books and scores predominated in his collection, treatises in Latin, Italian, and English were also present. Ritter enlarged his collection while in the U.S., acquiring not only American publications but also continuing to acquire European ones (such as the miniature scores of Boccherini Quintets issued by the Società del Quartetto di Firenze from 1863-67).

In 1862, Ritter moved to New York City, where he became the director of the Arion Männergesangverein. In 1867, he accepted appointment as Professor of Music and Director of the School of Music of Vassar College. Already active as a composer, Ritter became increasingly active as a writer about music. In addition to publications clearly prompted by his teaching duties—History of Music, in the Form of Lectures (Boston: Ditson, 1870-74), and Manual of Music History (New York: Scribner’s, 1886)—Ritter wrote articles for French, German, and English periodicals, edited the American edition of Alexander Flamant’s Das Reich der Töne (The Realm of Tones, 1882), and wrote two substantial histories (Music in England and Music in America, both published in New York by Scribner’s in 1883). As a composer, Ritter had twenty-two works published during his lifetime; his larger works, which remained in manuscript, included three symphonies, two concertos, several large-scale chamber works, and the Forty-Sixth Psalm for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra. Several of Ritter’s orchestral works were performed by the New York and Brooklyn philharmonic societies during his lifetime.

For the summer of 1891, Ritter planned a working vacation in Europe, with visits to the major conservatories, the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals, and time out to see surviving relatives in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, he fell ill during the June cruise to Antwerp, and died there only a week after his arrival (just one month after his 57th birthday) in July of 1891.

by John Shepard, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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