Leroy Anderson: A Christmas Festival

In 1950, A Christmas Festival was premiered in the middle of June.  At this time, Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) had been writing frequently for the Boston Pops, having garnered the attention and respect of its conductor, Arthur Feidler, back in 1938.  Anderson had a tremendous capacity for writing relatively short, relatable and digestible orchestra works that could be played by studio orchestras and then broadcast on the radio.  You see, back in the 1950's people would actually listen to orchestral music without having to sit through an action film.

That is, if you call what Hans Zimmer does "music".

A Christmas Festival is like the holiday mother lode.  In Anderson's own words it is not a medley of carols, but a reckoning.  A wholly consummate bible of all that pre-1950's Christmas music could proffer to mankind, hewn together to accommodate the limited technical requirements of his time and place.  In fact, it literally could not be contained by the recording faculties of the era.  To quote Anderson from an interview with Dick Bertel of WTIC Radio, Hartford, Connecticut:

"...when this was done, I think it was in 1950 or 1951, they still had single records as the main part of the market; LP's were just about coming in. so while it was played all the way through, that is, when it was recorded, for the LP, we also had to make a split after four minutes - the Christmas Festival runs about 8 minutes so that meant that when I wrote it I had to make a place in the middle where you could stop...
"... and if I may brag a bit, I defy anybody to find out the exact spot where that occurred..."
Already, this is a piece of music that is bursting at the seams of convention.  I like to imagine the hypothetical conversation between Leroy and his wife Eleanor as they discover that Arthur Feidler has commissioned the work went like this:


Leroy places the receiver on the cradle of the phone as he reaches for the wing of the large red chair and  slides into it as an untethered pile of bricks slides off a pallet on a moving truck.  His wife enters the room, immediately aware of the change of demeanor as a cold pall fell softly upon the parlor room.

"It was Arthur..." Leroy trails off.

"Yes?" Eleanor replies expectantly. 
"He..." Leroy trails off as he searches the wall to his left for the words that will not come. "He said, 'It's time.'"

Eleanor grows pale as the gravity of realization washes over her like the thousands of Christmas-past before. "It cannot be!  It's much too soon, my dear!  You'll have to call him back and expl-"

"Explain what?  That it's too much to bear?  That it's February?"
"That it isn't my destiny?!"

"It's just that..." 

Leroy calms a bit, realizing the brunt of his frustrations laid bare had upset his bride.  "What, my dear, what?" he said calmly, rising to hold her in his arms.

"T-the children..." she stammered.  "I asked Jane and Eric what they wanted Santa to bring for them and...and," she began weeping openly into Leroy's shoulders.  
"What was it?"
"Jane asked for a pair of Hopalong boots and Eric..." she breathed heavily, "He asked for a pistol!  That shoots!" 
She collapsed into his arms like a crushed rag doll, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Damn that Meredith Wilson!  That infernal '76 Trombones' simply wasn't enough for him, now he wants my children!?"  Eleanor was inconsolable, Leroy was galvanized.  "It's time.  I'll be in the study."


I did take a few liberties there considering that Leroy was probably really stoked to write this work, and it shows.  Also, Meredith Wilson didn't write "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas" until 1951 and "The Music Man" premiered in 1957, but hey it's artistic license.

One could make the argument that Leroy Anderson was not a serious composer of serious music and therefore somewhat less important an author of music history than others of his time.  I would counter that many dismiss Hemingway on similar terms for his favoritism of short words opposed to the loquacious vocabularies of his contemporaries.  Quantity does not an artist make.

Anderson was a cult favorite for all things in the light orchestral category and one of the best things about that is that his music maintains a certain relevance today.  Since my wife and son are now listening to that Christmas radio station daily, I've heard "Sleigh Ride" about 47 times already this year!

The other side of Leroy Anderson is that his music is still played frequently by Pops orchestras and school bands and orchestras.  A frequent trick to getting kids to realize that instrumental music isn't all lame is to relate it to something that has credibility in their stupid lives of Beats by Dre and pictures of cats.

Or whatever...
It's recognizable and relevant to them because they've heard it on TV and the radio and the movies. It's part of the easily acceptable culture to them and therefore they can buy in without fear of looking foolish.  The other neat part is that it's just a lot of fun to play and to listen to as well.  It's not easy to write parts for specific instruments and make them fun to play for all.  As a trombonist, I can give you hours of music with horrifically boring trombone parts, but Leroy (being a trombonist himself) knew what he was doing.  He spread the love around.

As a special note, this is the remastered original recording.  

See you next Friday.