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ClassicsOnline Home » ANDERSON, L.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 3 - Sleigh Ride / The Typewriter / Plink, Plank, Plunk! / The Syncopated Clock
Leroy Anderson etched out his own unique place in American music – a composer rigorously trained in the classical tradition whose records topped the pop charts, a meticulous arranger of music whose own melodies were crafted with inventive precision. Here, in the first complete cycle of Anderson’s orchestral music, the Anderson family has made available several pieces that the composer did not release, with some first recordings scattered among the familiar and not-so-familiar titles. Volume Three includes the notorious musical gem The Typewriter, in which the machine is transformed into a relentlessly busy percussion instrument, the tasteful and soul-satisfying Suite of Carols for Brass Choir, and Anderson’s biggest hit, Sleigh Ride.
By David Denton
It was more by chance than design that Leroy Anderson became a composer, having decided on a career in the world of languages.Certainly his education lacked nothing in musical pedigree, having been a composition pupil of George Enescu and Walter Piston. But he had put all of that behind him when, by chance, Arthur Fiedler heard a score he had composed as a student, Harvard Fantasy. It was to mark the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the conductor and the Boston Pops, Fiedler asking Anderson to provide an ongoing supply of lightweight cameos for the orchestra. But the final icing on the cake came in 1950 when he received a recording contract to conduct his own music, that success leading to Broadway shows. Strangely his last years were largely taken in arranging music and conducting. He was to give the world of light music some of its best known melodies, The Phantom Regiment, Plink, Plank, Plunk, The Trumpeter’s Lullaby, The Syncopated Clock, Sleigh Ride, The Typewriter and Sandpaper Ballet are included on the 18 tracks, which also include Harvard Sketches, Melody on Two Notes and Mother’s Whistler all receiving their first recorded performance. Strangely he hid away the 1940 piece, Mother’s Whistler, the ultimate in Anderson’s ‘naughty’ compositions, only to be discovered in 1980, five years after his death. He did, however, rework the general idea in The Penny Whistle Song. Two of his arrangements are also featured in Seventy-Six Trombones and the theme from Gershwin’s Wintergreen for President. The most extended score comes with the Suite of Carols for Brass Choir, a seriesof straightforward carol settings for a 1955 album. For the BBC Concert Orchestra this style of music is their daily diet, and under the American conductor, Leonard Slatkin, they produce that mix of sugar and cream for those smoochy numbers, or the spiky brilliance Anderson brought to his humerous scores. Recorded by BBC Radio engineers in that fabulous acoustic of Watford Town Hall, this is a disc no lover of light music can be without.
Leroy Anderson (1908-1975)
Orchestral Music • 3
Leroy Anderson liked to describe his compositions as “concert music with a popular touch” – which sums up his achievement beautifully. The British may have established a precedent in the field of light symphonic pieces, and several Anderson imitators – some of them quite worthy – sprang up in the wake of his commercial success in the 1950s. But Anderson took light concert music to an unsurpassed peak, investing as much time, craft, and concentrated inspiration upon his miniatures as if he were writing a symphony – and always in a distinctly American accent. Volume 3 of the first complete recording of Anderson’s orchestral music zeroes in upon the heart of his output where the level of invention is consistently astonishing, but also treats Anderson’s fans to a few hitherto-unrecorded rarities that have been released by his family.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1908, Anderson was a graduate of Harvard University, where he studied composition with Walter Piston and George Enescu and led the Harvard Band for a number of years. He seemed headed for a career in linguistics until a guest spot in 1936 leading the Boston Pops Orchestra in his Harvard Fantasy caught the discerning ear of Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, who promptly asked Anderson to write some pieces for the orchestra. Following a long break during World War II, where he served in the U.S. Army as a translator of Scandinavian languages, Anderson became a regular at the Pops, crafting arrangements of popular music and contributing miniature gems of his own.
Anderson’s star rose to surprising heights after he was offered a recording contract of his own with Decca Records in 1950, for which he led pick-up orchestras of New York’s finest symphonic musicians in best-selling albums of his own compositions. He turned to Broadway, completing the score for one show, Goldilocks, in 1958 before returning to his metier, the miniature, with one final burst of new published material in 1962. Aside from writing a few unpublished original pieces, Anderson’s remaining years were spent mostly arranging and guestconducting until his death from lung cancer in 1975.
Almost any Leroy Anderson composition has its own instantly recognizable profile, with sturdy structures, distinctive harmonies, and melodic ideas to burn. Some pieces simply bear the name of a musical form – no more, no less – and Anderson either has a fine time sending them up or leaving their interpretation up to the listener’s imagination.
Promenade, which the composer was working on while still in the Army, proceeds at a faster clip than the strolling pace that the title might suggest, giving the muted trumpet a fine, jaunty tune. In Saraband, the melody conforms to the stately Baroque dance form that Bach and Handel knew, but Anderson doubles the speed of the rhythm underpinning that tune – and before long, he injects some other mischievous ingredients into the machinery. Serenata is the vehicle for another pair of firstrate tunes, one in a minor key and a second in major, cruising over a percolating Latin guaracha-like rhythm. Serenata also bears the distinction of being the only Anderson piece (so far) to become a jazz standard; among many others, Cannonball Adderley, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, and most recently Wayne Shorter, have recorded it.
Anderson was a master of using sound effects as integral parts of a composition, as opposed to gratuitously applied gimmicks. The most notorious of these pieces may have been The Typewriter, written in 1950 but held back for recording purposes until 1953, when it appeared as the B-side for The Girl In Satin on a single. Though computer technology rendered it obsolete, the humble manual typewriter has been given added life in live performance by Anderson’s concise musical gem, transformed into a relentlessly busy solo percussion instrument. The Syncopated Clock, which became famous in America as the theme for CBS-TV’s The Late Show, is another irresistible example of Anderson’s wry humor, with woodblocks depicting a clock that insists upon occasionally ticking on the wrong beats.
Written for the 1954 album A Leroy Anderson ‘Pops’ Concert, Sandpaper Ballet also employs an unusual instrument. Inspired by ancient vaudeville acts where dancers sprinkled sand on the stage during their routines, Anderson has his percussionists use three grades of sandpaper to scratch out the rhythms in his own sprightly take on the old soft shoe. But the title does not necessarily dictate the means in Anderson’s world, for The Penny Whistle Song assigns some of his catchiest, most endearing happy-go-lucky tunes to the flute section.
For a long time Blue Tango was considered to be Anderson’s biggest hit, but gradually, almost by stealth, Sleigh Ride has overtaken it and probably will hold that title for eternity. Although not a Christmas song per se, it became a permanent holiday standard thanks in part to Mitchell Parish’s added-on lyrics that perfectly latch onto the rhythms of the piece’s propulsive tunes and joyously evoke winters of the past. Anderson himself never figured out why some of his compositions became more popular than others. For example, on the album that yielded Blue Tango, he thought that Plink, Plank, Plunk!, a sequel to Jazz Pizzicato for plucked strings that bubbles over with ingenious pointed wit, would be the hit.
One of Anderson’s most haunting tone poems, The Phantom Regiment depicts a nameless body of soldiers marching into and then trotting across the scene before marching away without a trace. A Trumpeter’s Lullaby, written for Boston Pops’ trumpeter Roger Voisin who wanted something other than the usual flag-waver, has become a popular vehicle for trumpeters who want to display their lyrical side, and Anderson’s genius for supporting detail is evident in the emotional harmonies during the brief animated central episode.
One delightful new find in this volume, Mother’s Whistler is an early piece (1940) with an impish theme for the violins that comically repeats over and over, interrupted by some unexpected disturbances. Probably withdrawn by the always-self-critical composer, the piece remained under wraps for forty years until it turned up in the Boston Pops library in 1980, and then had to wait another 27 years for its first recording here.
Melody on Two Notes, composed in 1966 but also not published during Anderson’s lifetime, nor recorded until now, was part of a projected suite for beginning ensembles. The basic tune, consisting of a G and a D, can hardly be simpler, but Anderson uses his thorough knowledge of harmony, filtered through his own musical signatures, to construct a viable, attractive piece of music.
Harvard Sketches, another first recording, is the original 1939 version of Alma Mater, which was published in 1954 with somewhat different movement titles and often markedly different musical materials. Anderson hoped to give Harvard students the dubious thrill of self-recognition in episodes such as Freshman in Harvard Square(represented by a saucy out-of-tune clarinet), or the uptight librarian rapping the desk for silence in Widener Reading Room. In the latter the general listener is also reminded of fellow New Englander Charles Ives’s layered disruptions of serenity.
In his numerous arrangements of music by others, Anderson often displayed the same degree of creative thinking and wit that he did in his own compositions. His treatment of the homely nursery tune Old MacDonald Had a Farm, complete with slapstick sounds from the barnyard and elsewhere, always provoked laughter from Boston Pops audiences. Interestingly, two of his era’s biggest pop stars, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, also recorded their own versions of Old MacDonald, but Anderson’s is a lot funnier. While Anderson was arranging Seventy-Six Trombones from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, he must have noticed that the name John Philip Sousa figures in Prof. Harold Hill’s patter just before he launches into the song. So Anderson gradually lets Sousa usurp his arrangement, even pulling off some clever Willsonian fusions of the latter’s tunes and Sousa’s.
On the other hand, Anderson’s arrangement of the Gershwins’ Wintergreen for President (from Of Thee I Sing) hews close to the original’s bustling manner. And in Suite Of Carols for Brass Choir, one of three such suites (the others were for strings and winds) arranged for a 1955 holiday season album, Anderson wears an entirely straight face and turns out tasteful, soul-satisfying writing for brass that is way above the level of the average Christmas potpourri.
Richard S. Ginell
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