Monday, 6 December 2010

Leroy Anderson: A Christmas Festival

I hope I will be allowed a Christmas Indulgence on these pages to showcase a piece of music by the great American composer Leroy Anderson. (In fact I will also be posting about his Sleigh Ride in a few days time!) However, my excuse is that Anderson makes use of a number of Christmas tunes which are part of the cultural heritage ‘both sides of the pond’.

A Christmas Festival was composed in 1950 at a time when Leroy Anderson was an arranger with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Their conductor-in-chief, Arthur Fiedler, required a piece of music that would cover two sides of a 45 or 78rpm ‘single’ for the ‘Holiday’ season. As Richard S. Ginell wisely suggests, Anderson delivered above and beyond the call of duty for such material. He wove a tapestry of well-known Christmas songs and carols into an ‘ambitious’ concert overture. Use is made of 'Joy to the World', 'Jingle Bells' and 'O, Come all ye faithful' as the main thematic material. However the other tunes used are 'Deck the Halls', 'Good King Wenceslas', 'God Rest you Merry Gentlemen', 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', 'The First Nowell' and 'Silent Night'. The arrangement of these tunes is actually rather subtle: the composer has not chosen to show off, even although the tunes are exceptionally well orchestrated with a huge instrumental variety given for repeated versions of each carol.
Over the years a number of arrangements have been made of this ‘arrangement’ including for brass band and wind ensemble. Finally, Anderson allowed for a number of cuts in the piece; however I believe that the full length as recorded on Naxos 8.559381 is effective and maintains the listener’s interest. It is little surprise that it has become a Chistmas favourite – especially in the United States. In fact, I have a Google alert for Holst and just the other day I read that this piece was given at the Church of the Covenant and Immaculate Conception Church in Washington on 4 December. The Holst piece was his Christmas Day for Choir – of which more later!

Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival can be heard on Youtube. There is also an excellent recording on Naxos 8.559381


Karen said...

Thank you for this! Leroy Anderson is an American treasure whose music deserves to be known all over the world and thanks to Naxos it is on its way. I grew up with the Boston Pops and attended many concerts from about the age of 16 on. Anderson's brilliant arrangements and his own delightful compositions enchanted those audiences and we all felt privileged to hear his music live. Mention Sleigh Ride and it starts playing in my mind. He had a great facility as a composer and his music never fails to engage. In a way I suppose that one might call him the "Norman Rockwell of Music" for his ability to capture the familiar and turn it into art. A while back I discovered his piano concerto, a work he well worth hearing even though for some reason he did not list it in his catalogue. It makes me wonder what he might have done had he written more concertos and perhaps a symphony or two!


CADIstari said...

I couldn't agree more! Christmas morning didn't start until A Christmas Festival was playing softly through the speakers. I couldn't wait to perform this in high school, and enjoy playing it today. The original album notes describing the obscure carols are wonderful, as is the album and it's separate ensemble performances!
Merry CHristmas!