Welcome to my favorite holiday song!
It’s hard not to think immediately of snow, Christmas, or just the holiday season in general when hearing the opening bars of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. Anderson uses musical imagery to great effect in his works, and Sleigh Ride is no exception. And to think he composed this classic winter song during a heat wave in the summer of 1946!
Anderson’s music falls into the category of “light classical”. If you’ve heard anything by the Boston Pops (notable conductors include Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Keith Lockhart), you’ve heard light classical. The lines can be a bit blurry as to what makes something “light” classical versus “serious”, but I think of it like the movies: the “serious” pieces are the heavy-hitting dramas that get nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars; the “light” pieces are your romantic comedies and such. Or literary fiction compared to a cozy mystery. I enjoy a variety of music, so I’ll gladly include some lighter pieces on this blog.
The introduction throws us immediately into this winter wonderland, with the jingling sleigh bells and bouncy trumpet call, followed by flute snowflakes. I like the French horn tension underneath the trumpets at the beginning.
Then we get on our merry way, with the horse trotting through the snow. The main melody is just so happy and light! There’s a smooth, longer line in the mid-range instruments that my bassoonist friend likes to say is the road the sleigh is traveling over. Listen for the reply in the trombones and bass voices after the first statement of the theme (0:20).
The next section adds some temple blocks for the “horse hoof” effect. Not quite as funny as a pair of coconuts, but it gets the image across just the same. There’s a nice little countermelody going on in this section. It sounds like it’s in the violas, but I’m not positive on that as I’ve only performed the band version (do any of my readers know?) Then we hit a sforzando-piano chord at 0:42 (it’s suddenly accented then immediately softer) in the horns, which grows louder (crescendos) as the xylophone gives us a transition back into the main theme.
This time, the theme is played by the trumpets as the high woodwinds and strings create snow flurries by playing a short trill on each note. After this time through the melody, we move into a syncopated transition and the ensemble gets quieter for the next part.
Here we get another toy from the percussion – the “whip”. You might think, “how hard can that be to play?”. Well, you need to be absolutely on time with those whip cracks! After a buildup in volume from the rest of the ensemble, there’s one beat where no one else plays – if the whip doesn’t sound there, it’s rather obvious. After the successful whip crack, Anderson brings us back down to piano (soft) in order to crescendo again into another whip crack. With the distraction of the whip and the liveliness of the melody, it’s easy to miss some neat chord changes that are happening during this bit after the second whip crack (1:13).
The next transition harkens back to the beginning of the piece, but adds some echoes and uses shorter segments of that trumpet theme (1:33) before restating the “flute snowflake” theme (1:40). But for the next statement of the main theme, Anderson makes it 20% cooler by jazzing the whole thing up. The trumpets do their jazzy thing, followed by the trombones’ more bombastic reply (1:47). Then everyone gets to jump in: the upper voices get a fun doodle and the basses have a great moving line.
After the excitement of the jazz section, the ensemble settles back down for the rest of the ride. We hear familiar themes and accompaniments as the pieces winds down. Anderson doesn’t let us get completely comfortable, though, as he interjects a brief call-and-answer between the instruments (2:30). This begins the lead-up to the most famous part of the piece: the horse whinny, courtesy of a solo trumpet player. We then hear a quick salute to the clip-clop of the horse hooves and one more whip crack before the entire orchestra announces the end.
I’ll close this post with a fun arrangement of Sleigh Ride. Remember how we had that odd-metered section in Armenian Dances? The one in 5/8 time? Well, here’s Sleigh Ride in 7/8. The seven beats might not be easily heard right away, but the intro has a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 rhythm, so you’ll hear three long pulses then one short pulse. This sequence happens four times (four measures’ worth) before the melody starts. Whether or not you can hear those seven quick notes per measure, you should feel a bit of a lilt to the rhythm.
Happy and safe holidays, everyone! I’ll see you in 2013!