29 Oct

Notes and Suggestions on a Performance of Leroy Anderson's SleighRide

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An article by William Zucker

At this time of the year, the air waves are bombarded with broadcasts of Christmas carols almost non-stop, which of course we have come to expect as part of the holiday season. With some of this material or at least manner of presentation in some cases, the material is of such a quality that one could mildly regret that we do not get to hear some of it at other times of the year. The symbolic connotations, of course, is the raison d' etre for what we are hearing, not so much the actual material.

Certainly in the case of certain classical works, such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker or Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve, one could ask that question. Regarding the Nutcracker, it is entirely possible that we might hear the familiar suite from time to time at concerts; however, it is almost certain that dance companies will not pick it up during the year at large when the seasonal presentations have become almost obligatory.

One item which has fallen into such a category, although such was apparently not always the case, has been Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride. One of its composer's finest pieces, I would venture to say that it was composed as an individual picture or vignette in exactly the same manner as many of his other such pieces, without any thought whatever being given to the holiday season and that holiday season only. But because we are nowadays bombarded with it in presentations that are thoroughly bowdlerized, even when the original version appears, it is desirable to take stock of what is happening with this piece compared to what it was when it first came out, and probably not written, let alone conceived, during the holiday season.

We hear many of Leroy Anderson's pieces at open air concerts of light music, and they have been amply and frequently recorded, albeit with variable results. Hearing what I am now hearing every day from PA and sound systems in restaurants, etc. makes me extremely desirous to discard this and return to the original conception from the early 1950s.

I will add, however, that the adding of words such as supplied by Mitchell Parish, appears harmless to me in that sense. What I'm concerned about is the composer's original conception being turned into something not originally indigenous to the piece.

I would appear to be contradicting myself when I repeatedly say that I'm no authenticist, that I insist on taking serious works in the manner that has been accepted over the years, regardless of what original audiences might have heard. But I take each piece of music on its own merits, as I find it, and approach it accordingly to attempt to make it sound better as I see it. In the present case we are dealing with a period of 60 or so years, well within a lifetime, where one can actually be witness to some of the as I see it unwelcome changes that have occurred, actually not only with this piece, but with many others of Mr. Anderson's. It is a special issue here because it has been detached from its original settings and made to serve a totally different function during the holiday season. We are not dealing with "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," or "Adeste Fidelis" here, even though Mr. Anderson has turned out some really wonderful arrangements of carols, along with a medley I refer to as the Christmas Festival Overture. This latter is a totally separate issue, although one can still judge those from the point of view of Leroy Anderson rather than Christmas.

With Sleigh Ride, the subject of this essay, I would like to return once and for all to the original presentation when the work was first recorded by the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler. I should hasten to add that in most cases regarding Leroy Anderson presentations, I would recommend the composer's original - not subsequent - recordings, but in a few instances including this one I would instead recommend the recordings as made by Mr. Fiedler as better presenting the composer's own wishes and ideas.

The matter of music for the holiday season is a matter in itself outside the scope of this essay. My concern is with the particular piece under consideration, and to return it to the setting within which it was originally conceived, as a separate vignette in itself possibly having no connection with the holiday season originally, but rather as part of a group of light orchestral novelty numbers.

To begin with, the whole needs to be taken in a far more relaxed, leisurely tempo than is commonly done today, and the tempo once established in this manner must be held throughout. Following the introduction, the main idea gets its full due as usual, but the inner tenor voice should be clearly heard, not in a melodic sense but rather as a means of filling in the very cogent harmonic movement. This is a characteristic feature of this composer, and one would do well to give it attention in that aspect. There is a slight swelling at the end of the phrase coincident with the harmonic progression prior to the repetition of the idea.

On the second strain, it must be seen to that the clippety clop of the wood blocks must never be permitted to overtake or drown out the melodic elements taking place. Looking once again at the inner tenor voice, it is to be noted that on the repetition the line skips upward by a seventh into the higher octave. This is a very witty effect and may be brought out by a very subtle dynamic inflection.

When the first idea returns on this occasion, responding to the use of enhanced forces, it is to be given with plenty of dynamic energy, even though the compositional substance of the original remains the same. The tempo of course remains constant.

After a short transition with an accompanying diminuendo, we arrive at the middle section. In order for the main idea, admittedly not an ambitious one as it mainly consists of a repeated note before arriving at its culmination, to which there should be a slight dynamic increase. The percussion effects, including the clop-clop of the wood block and the whip effect, must never be permitted to obtrude the melodic effect; however, the held tenor note in tenuto may be swelled somewhat in approaching the culmination of the phrase, exactly as with the top part.

At the end of this section, the declamation on a D dominant (from G Major) changes to an F dominant as preparation for the return. I would configure the harmony at this latter point so that the F is more prominent, in view of the return to the principal key of B Flat Major.

The original idea, when it returns, is given a rather jazzy, swing type rhythm, an effect that Mr. Anderson frequently throws into his conceptions, with varied results; however, in this case it works splendidly. The most should be made of this novel version, with the rhythms fully accentuated. On the repetition, we have a more muscular version of the same idea, with a B Flat-D-E Flat-E Natural-F ostinato (the last two in half time eighth notes), the effect of which is even more successful than the first version. And the conclusion of this phrase ends on an off beat with emphasis, another typical effect employed by Mr. Anderson to good purpose.

The second strain now follows, in a condition precisely as on the first occasion; however, when the main idea returns, it is this time presented very delicately, and in a continual diminuendo. On the last phrase, we reach to a key remotely distant - a tritone away - and then proceed from that point forward by fifths (always in diminuendo) until at the end of the phrase we arrive punctually at the original tonic.

Following the expansion of same (reminiscent of the opening accompaniment at the outset before the original idea began), the harmony changes momentarily to a Neapolitan chord C Flat-E Flat-F over which we hear what is evidently meant to imitate the whinnying of a horse; however, whatever the intent, it should never sound too strident, as the overall effect should be that the piece is winding down.

On the resolution back to B Flat, the final emphasis should be directed at the two last B Flat unisons which conclude the piece.

This piece really does deserve greater respect on its own terms than it has received in more recent years. I have read that Mr. Anderson, in his work, has brought in some novel instruments to add color and spice to his work. All power to those who can enjoy this sort of thing, but I must say, my view of his work is totally different. I do not wish to see or hear him spoken of as though he were Spike Jones, and though he apparently was diffident about it, his music really is strong enough to stand on its own, to speak on its own terms for itself, without the need for any extra-musical elements that at times really do spoil what he has set out to accomplish. The inherent quality of the music is far above what even he himself may have thought of it, whether he wished it or not - perhaps "overqualified" would be a good word to describe what I am attempting to describe. There is far too much refinement in the music for an excess of these sound effects to be absorbed in the basic conception to any great extent, and I consider this as a compliment of his work in the most sincere sense, regardless of whether he might have agreed had I ever been able to convey my thoughts directly to him.

As usual, I welcome all comments; as much with commentary in this music as well as with those on more involved pieces that I have written on.

William Zucker

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.