Leroy Anderson Captures Fun and Feelings in His Music
by Kathy Warnes
Leroy Anderson’s musical compositions are original, often humorous miniatures employing creative instrumental effects, but he also composed serious works.
Leroy Anderson composed original, often humorous miniatures that featured creative instrumental effects, but he wrote serious works as well, including “Piano Concerto in C” and the music for the Broadway musical “Goldilocks.” The music of George Gershwin heavily influenced Anderson’s musical compositions as did the folk music from around the world. Decades after his death, his music is still as timely as an I Pod download.
Leroy Anderson Mimics Clocks, Typewriters, Sandpaper, and Sleighs
Leroy Anderson expressed his sense of humor in his song that he called “The Syncopated Clock”, which he wrote in 1945, by exaggerating the sounds of a clock ticking to syncopated music. The CBS television network in New York used “The Syncopated Clock” as the theme song for “The Late Show” from 1950-1976.
He replicates the carriage movements and bells of versatile typewriters like the Smith Corona and The Underwood in “The Typewriter,” written in 1950. His “Sandpaper Ballet”, written in 1954, sounds like sheets of sandpaper doing a dance on wood. The fact that he composed “Sleigh Ride” in 1948 in Connecticut during a heat wave and as a winter vignette and not a Christmas song adds an extra humorous twist to the song that includes clacking hooves and neighing trumpets.
Leroy Anderson Writes Music for Musicians at all Levels of Ability
Orchestras, bands, ensembles and solo performers routinely include such Anderson songs as “Blue Tango”, 1951, which became the first instrumental single to sell one million copies. “Forgotten Dreams,” “Belle of the Ball,” “Bugler’s Holiday”, and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby, in their repertoires. Anderson’s compositions are so versatile that they allow musicians the same versatility in performing them.
Such diverse performers as Scottish arranger, orchestrator, conductor, and composer Gordon Cree, and American rhythm and blues singer Sarah Vaughn interpreted his “Serenata” in radically different but equally moving ways.
Harvard University Band and Boston Pops
Leroy Anderson’s life was as varied and versatile as his music. The son of Swedish immigrants, Leroy was born on June 29, 1908, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard Grammar School, and Cambridge High and Latin School and he went on to Harvard, earning an M.A. in Music in 1930.
He conducted the Harvard University Band while he worked toward a PhD in languages with the idea of becoming a language teacher. Leroy was a gifted linguist and mastered the German, Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Old Norse) as well as French, Italian and Portuguese. Despite his linguistic qualifications, Leroy chose music for his life’s work.
While still a graduate student at Harvard, Leroy directed the Harvard University Band and wrote several arrangements for band performances. His compositions attracted the attention of Arthur Fiedler; Director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and Fiedler hired him as an arranger in 1936. In 1938, the Boston Pops performed Leroy’s first composition, “Jazz Pizzicato,” and he wrote many of his compositions for the Boston Pops orchestra which was the first to perform and record them.
Army Linguist and Composer
During World War II, the Army utilized Leroy’s fluency in languages by making him an officer in the Counter Intelligence Corps in Iceland. Leroy married Eleanor Firke before he shipped to Iceland, and while serving there, he wrote an Icelandic grammar for the Army. He was promoted to Captain and eventually assigned to the Pentagon as Chief of the Scandinavian Department of Military Intelligence.
While he still worked at the Pentagon in 1945, he composed his first big hit, “The Syncopated Clock,” and he conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra in premieres of “The Syncopated Clock” and” Promenade.” The Andersons first child, Jane, was born at this time and their son Eric was born after Leroy left the Army and the family moved to New York City.
After World War II, Leroy rejoined the Boston Pops as an orchestrator-arranger and composed and conducted for the Pops from 1946-1950. He and Eleanor and their two children settled permanently in Woodbury, Connecticut where their last two children, Rolf and Kurt, were born in the early 1950s. In 1947, Leroy composed “Fiddle-Faddle,” and “Sleigh Ride,” arranged a medley of traditional Irish tunes that he called “The Irish Suite.”
Decca Records and “Concerto in C for Piano and Orchestra”
In 1950, Decca Records offered Leroy the chance to lead his own 55 piece studio orchestra, which he accepted. He conducted the premieres of his works and recorded them for Decca Records. These pieces included “Belle of the Ball, “Blue Tango,” Horse and Buggy,” “Plink, Plank, Plunk!”, “The Typewriter,” and “The Waltzing Cat.”
By 1952, Leroy Anderson had earned a place as one of the most important American composers of light concert music, using the medium of “orchestral miniature.” In 1953, he debuted an extended classical composition that he called “Concerto in C for Piano and Orchestra,” and conducted performances in Chicago and Cleveland. After his composition received mixed reviews, Leroy withdrew it so he could revise the first part, but he never completed the changes.
He worked on his concerto for the next twenty years until shortly before he died. His family later published the concerto which premiered in 1988, the same year that Leroy Anderson was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Orchestra Miniatures, Broadway Musical, and Enduring Legacy
While he worked on his serious compositions, Leroy also continued to produce orchestraminiatures. In 1954, he wrote “Bugler’s Holiday, “Sandpaper Ballet,” and “Forgotten Dreams.” In 1958, Leroy collaborated with writers-lyricists Walter and Jean Kerr to write his first and only Broadway musical called Goldilocks with orchestrations by Philip J. Lang. Goldilocks earned two Tony Awards, but it wasn’t a commercial success.
Leroy Anderson continued to record for Decca Records through 1962 and remained active with the Boston Pops as a conductor and composer into the early 1970s. He died of cancer on May 18, 1975, but his music lives as an enduring legacy.
Burgess Speed, Eleanor Anderson, Steve Metcalf, Leroy Anderson, A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, Praeger Publishers, 2004.