Arts - Summer 2008

Syncopated Clock, Indeed

On Leroy Anderson’s centennial, a defense of the popular composer from an orchestra’s stage

By Janet Frank | June 1, 2008

The conclusion of “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson is the part you never hear in the elevator or in the grocery store (it’s cut from the Muzak version), but that final trumpet solo is the moment that players in the orchestra are waiting for. It’s an imitation of a horse’s whinny, and each year the trumpet player is going for the biggest laugh yet. At rehearsals, members of the string section crane their necks toward the brass section, a breach of orchestral etiquette, but in this case no one minds.

Leroy Anderson was born 100 years ago on June 29 and composed dozens of pieces from the mid-1930s until his death in 1975. Those compositions as well as hundreds of arrangements he wrote for various combinations of instruments permeate American culture more thoroughly than the work of any composer of any century. “The Syncopated Clock,” “The Typewriter,” “The Waltzing Cat”—even when people don’t recognize the names of these pieces, they know the tunes. Every day, Anderson’s music makes it into a commercial, a radio show, a film, or an elevator. It’s impossible to get through the Christmas season without hearing “Sleigh Ride,” and difficult, or so it seems, to attend a junior high school concert and escape a rendition of the “Trumpeter’s Lullaby.” Perhaps only Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and Chopin’s “Funeral March” can match Anderson’s compositions in iconic musical status.

Anderson had the idea for “Sleigh Ride” during one August heat spell while digging for old water pipes outside his summer cottage in Woodbury, Connecticut. He likely recalled hearing a trumpet player showing off how a horse’s whinny can be replicated (instructions: “horse whinny, valves halfway” and then the notation for a two-bar descending shaking glissando). Being away from the piano didn’t impede the composer’s work. Eleanor Anderson, who married him in 1942 and resides today in Woodbury, told me that her husband never approached a piano until a piece was nearly finished. “He said if you start by sitting at the piano, your fingers are apt to go into certain patterns,” she recalled.

That Leroy Anderson would make a career in music was in many ways unlikely. Although he came from a musical family and studied composition with Walter Piston at Harvard, Anderson was a linguistics scholar. A Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate, he was fluent in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Swedish, which he spoke at home with his parents. It was Anderson’s position as director of the Harvard Band that wound up determining his career path. Arthur Fiedler, who was at the time a young director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, heard some of Anderson’s band arrangements and was impressed enough to commission a piece. The result was “Jazz Pizzicato” for string orchestra, which proved so popular with audiences that Fiedler wanted to record it. Since the composition lasted only 90 seconds, insufficient to fill out a 78 rpm record, Anderson wrote “Jazz Legato” to pair with it. That was the start of a long and beneficial relationship between conductor and composer, each contributing to the growing fame of the other.

Anderson’s music fit perfectly into Fiedler’s new formula for Boston Pops concerts, one with light classics, such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on the G String” and possibly Franz Liszt’s Concerto no. 1 (played by a young piano soloist) on the first half of the program, even lighter fare on the second half—perhaps a contemporary American offering like Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite or George Gershwin’s An American in Paris—plus encores. Fiedler’s programming was criticized at the time as a watering down of standards, but audiences liked it. In such a program, Anderson’s music occupied a niche, appearing during the second half of a concert and usually at the very end.

Anderson’s genius was for the miniature: a short piece, complete in itself, that would bring a smile or a chuckle. The typical Anderson miniature is charming and cleverly conceived. In “The Waltzing Cat,” the descending violin glissandos sound like a cat meowing. In “Sandpaper Ballet,” a piece that evokes vaudevillian soft-shoe, Anderson employed three grades of sandpaper as a percussion instrument. The gimmick of “The Typewriter” speaks for itself, although today many young people in audiences barely know what a typewriter is. And the melodies were often beautiful. “The First Day of Spring” is reminiscent of Stephen Foster in its lyricism.

In the 1950s Anderson signed an agreement with Decca to conduct and record his own music. The orchestras assembled for the sessions made up a who’s who of the greatest players of the day. Among the distinguished violinists were Victor Aitay, Max Hollander, and Oscar Shumsky; the violists included William Lincer and Walter Trampler; and Leonard Rose, Janos Starker, Frank Miller, and Bernard Greenhouse contributed to the cello section. The wind and brass players were of comparably high caliber.

All of this brought Anderson a degree of fame in his time that most composers could only envy. His recording of “Blue Tango,” backed by a waltz called “Belle of the Ball,” was America’s number one hit record for five weeks in the spring of 1952. Hanna and Barbera selected “The Waltzing Cat” as background music for a Tom and Jerry MGM cartoon. And beginning in the 1950s, a Percy Faith recording of “The Syncopated Clock” introduced movies on the long-running Late Show that aired on some CBS stations. When neighbors in Woodbury heard that he was a composer and asked what music he’d written, Anderson, the ever-reticent Swede, would reply, “I wrote the theme of The Late Show.”

Initially, Anderson’s works were restricted to pops concerts, but pops programming has evolved. Today, a Fiedler concert would be considered too classically oriented; at the same time, distinctions are blurring between the standard symphony concert and the typical pops program. Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in which I’m a cellist, has included Anderson pieces on subscription concerts and often performs them as encores on tour concerts. In line with this year’s Anderson centennial, Slatkin and the BBC Concert Orchestra have recorded the composer’s complete works. On a recent morning before a dress rehearsal in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, I spoke with Slatkin about Anderson. “What appeals to me in particular is the degree of sophistication these so-called light pieces have,” he told me. “I take these pieces on tours of mainstream concerts because I consider them to be not pops works at all but rather very high art.”

Slatkin’s opinion appears to be widely shared. This year dozens of concerts in the United States, Europe, and Asia are celebrating Anderson’s music. The town of Kristianstad, Sweden, from which his parents emigrated, is hosting a series of celebratory events. If anything, Anderson’s compositions seem to have become even more well known in the 21st century. “Leroy, himself, felt that his music would live on,” Eleanor Anderson recounts. “He didn’t seem to have any question in his mind. But he is even more popular now that CDs and the Internet have enabled people to hear his music more readily.”

Anderson’s career included some attempts at longer pieces, including a piano concerto and a 1958 Broadway musical, Goldilocks, but most of these met with little success. The price for his mastery of the miniature was to be confined to it.

Snobs may look down on Anderson for his genre of composition, but most musicians do not. High art or low art, Anderson’s music is admired for its ingenuity, and orchestra members often smile along with the audience in their appreciation. When asked to describe her husband as a person, Eleanor Anderson used just one word, “serious.” This didn’t surprise me. To write a gently humorous piece of music is a tremendously difficult undertaking. Most actors will say it is harder to do comedy than tragedy. It’s true for music, too.

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