1908 — 1975
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Leroy Anderson was an American composer, conductor and arranger whose many light, pop-influenced orchestral works have delighted audiences for decades. His talent is evident in his ability to master nine languages and become a senior member of the Scandinavian Intelligence community while still maintaining the time to compose prolifically, including works such as “The Syncopated Clock” and “Sleigh Ride” which have become immensely popular and instantly recognizable.
Anderson’s parents were both Swedish immigrants who had travelled to the United States in their childhoods, eventually settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both were musically inclined with his mother playing organ in church and his father dabbling in mandolin and banjo. Anderson began taking piano lessons with his mother at the age of 11, and shortly afterwards he began studying more intensively at the New England Conservatory of Music, while also privately studying the double bass.
In 1925, Anderson entered the prestigious Harvard University, where he played trombone and double bass in the orchestra, sung in the Harvard Glee Club, and directed the Harvard University Marching Band, for which he also arranged. While there he also studied composition withWalter Piston and George Enescu <>. Anderson greatly admired Piston in particular, as he stated in one of his many anecdotes about his teacher: “The general tendency of a composer is to fall in love with what he does. Piston always advised us to listen to our compositions as though someone else had written them. My biggest disappointment came the day he handed me back one of my pieces with the comment that it sounded like improvisation.”
After his military service, Anderson resumed arranging regularly for the Boston Pops, working from his new home in Woodbury, Connecticut. He also began writing, for the first time, more extended concert pieces, the first being Concerto in C for Piano and Orchestra (1954). Anderson, who conducted the premier concert, expressed dissatisfaction with the end result and quickly withdrew the work to perform revisions. Although he never got around to writing these revisions, his family released the work posthumously in its original form, and it has since caught on with orchestras around the world.
In 1958 Anderson tried his hand again at extended works with his first and only musical,Goldilocks. Although the production did not do well, a fact blamed mostly on its weak story line, the score was very highly regarded.
Although he was already very accomplished in music it was not his only focus, and after completing his musical studies Anderson remained at Harvard to pursue a PhD in German and Scandinavian languages. By the end of his studies he was fluent in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, French, Italian and Portuguese, in addition to his native English and Swedish. To support himself during this time he worked as a freelance church organist and double bassist and taught music at Radcliffe College.
The beginning of Anderson’s composing career came in 1936 when he arranged several of the songs that he wrote at Harvard for Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops. In 1938, the Boston Pops commissioned Anderson to write a short piece for them. The resulting composition,Jazz Pizzicato, was extremely successful and led to many more commissions, including the thematically related Jazz Legatoin 1939. Anderson would have a long-standing partnership with the Boston Pops for the majority of his career, serving for years as their resident arranger and orchestrator, and they premiered most of his subsequent works.
A defining aspect of many of Anderson’s “miniatures” is his untraditional and often comic use of percussion, which is often evident in the title of the work. For example, “The Syncopated Clock” employs a regularly percussive tick-tock sound which is disrupted at the end of each phrase, creating a comic effect. “The Typewriter” uses the eponymous machine as a musical instrument, while “Sandpaper Ballet” uses sandpaper to imitate the quiet sound of soft-shoe dancers. Perhaps the best of example of Anderson’s use of untraditional effects is in what is undeniably his most famous piece, “Sleigh Ride.” Composed in the summer of 1948, “Sleigh Ride” makes use of the sound of whips, sleigh bells and the infamous horse whinny (played on a trumpet) to present a picturesque holiday atmosphere.
During the last decade of Anderson’s life, he began spending more and more time nurturing the local music scene. He was on the board of directors of the New Haven and Hartford Symphonies and served as the manager for the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, in addition to many engagements as a guest conductor throughout the United States, Canada and Sweden. Although the name Leroy Anderson is no longer well known, many of his compositions are completely ubiquitous. His miniatures, a genre he was instrumental in popularizing, are still favorites of the Boston Pops and, because of the short attention span and relative ease of playing, of amateur bands and orchestras all over the United States. His influence and expertise ledJohn Williams to call him “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”
Images courtesy of Amazon, Dimple Records, Leroy Anderson and Kurt Anderson
By the early 1940s Anderson’s career was in full swing, but unfortunately he had to put his commitments on hold with the onset of American participation in World War II and compulsory military service. He spent the first several years working for various Scandinavian intelligence agencies, where his skills as a linguist and translator were in high demand, and was eventually transferred to the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Amazingly he still found time to write during his military service, and in 1945 the Boston Pops premiered his work “The Syncopated Clock.” The piece has since become an integral part of pop culture through its use as the theme song forThe Late Show for 25 years.