Leroy Anderson: Master of the Miniature The Boston-based composer is remembered, 100 years after his birth, for a string of three-minute pops-concert classics such as "Sleigh Ride," "The Typewriter" and "The Syncopated Clock."

Leroy Anderson: Master of the Miniature

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American composer Leroy Anderson was born 100 years ago today. His unique music remains timeless. There will be Anderson tribute concerts this year from Ecuador to Sweden, along with a five CD collection of his works. Some critics have placed him in the same sphere with George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland. Anderson's name isn't as well known as his music.

But as Pat Dowell explains, it doesn't really matter.

PAT DOWELL: If the name doesn't ring a bell, the music certainly will.

(Soundbite of "Sleigh Ride")

DOWELL: "Sleigh Ride" is a Christmas fixture as commonplace as a snowflake pasted on a window.

(Soundbite of "Sleigh Ride")

DOWELL: Anderson wrote "The Syncopated Clock," while he was a military intelligence officer. CBS TV adapted it in the 1950s as the theme for its original "Late Show."

(Soundbite of "Syncopated Clock")

And "The Typewriter" is a pops-concert staple. The 1950 composition features the manual typewriter on stage with the orchestra. In 1970, Anderson demonstrated in his home studio for Connecticut television station WTIC how he made the machine sounds a part of the music.

Mr. LEROY ANDERSON (Composer): And I don't have a typewriter. I have a bell here. The reason we have a bell - it would be impossible to set the carriage of the typewriter, so you want…

(Soundbite of Typewriter Sound Effect)

Mr. ANDERSON: Bing, and have the bell come right there. We have two drummers by the way. A lot of people think we use stenographers, but they can't do it because they can't make their fingers move fast enough. So we have drummers because they can get wrist action. So they play…

(Soundbite of Typewriter Sound Effect)

Mr. ANDERSON: And this goes back on the beat.

(Soundbite of "The Typewriter")

Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the new Anderson CDs, has played a few typewriters himself on the concert stage and he says it's hard.

Mr. LEONARD SLATKIN (Conductor): It is. You have to tamp down all the middle keys so that only the two outside ones work. And you have to start with your right hand in order to be able to hit the carriage return where Anderson specifies.

(Soundbite of "The Typewriter")

DOWELL: The composer's music has been a favorite of Slatkin's for years. The departing music director of the National Symphony Orchestra is known for presenting concerts both of challenging contemporary music and popular American composers. He points out that Anderson's music has always been popular.

Mr. SLATKIN: The nature of the pops concert has changed so dramatically over the last 25 or 30 years that we forgot they were masters of the art of writing the short miniature specifically for this kind of occasion.

(Soundbite of "Jazz Pizzicato")

DOWELL: "Jazz Pizzicato," a minute and a half of energetic plucking, was Anderson's first composition, and it was debuted by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1938. Leroy Anderson spent most of his life in the Boston area. He grew up in a family of Swedish immigrants who played music together. He said he got his education, from grade school to graduate school, on one street: Broadway in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mr. ANDERSON: The Harvard Yard was on one side and the graduate school was on the other side, by the law school. I went for the most part to the music building, to Paine Hall. If I'd walked a few steps longer, farther down, I've often though I might've been a lawyer.

DOWELL: Anderson did almost decide against a career in music. He was set to take a job as a language instructor — he was fluent in five, including Icelandic and Old Norse — but his arrangements as director of the Harvard band caught the ear of Arthur Fiedler, who encouraged him to compose. Anderson created his music at home, says his widow, Eleanor, in his head.

Ms. ELEANOR ANDERSON (Wife of Leroy Anderson): He said that he didn't like to use the piano at the beginning because your fingers tended to fall into familiar patterns, and it was only after the basic elements of the piece were in place in his head that he would go to the piano and use that.

DOWELL: Anderson was so much in his head that his widow and his son Rolf both describe him pacing through the house after dinner, unaware of everything around him.

Mr. ROLF ANDERSON (Son of Leroy Anderson): Now I remember once I was reading something interesting in a magazine or a book and I thought it would interest him. And as he walked through the living room, I said, Dad, you'll never believe what it says here in this book. It says - and then I looked up, and he had left the room. He really had never heard me at all. Didn't hear me speaking to him.

He just walked right on through, and that made it very clear to me that there was no point in even trying to talk to him at this time of the day. He was busy thinking of music.

DOWELL: And he was busy. Leroy Anderson composed more than 200 pieces, including a concerto and a Broadway musical "Goldilocks." And in 1952, Billboard named Anderson's instrumental "Blue Tango" the year's top-selling single.

(Soundbite of "Blue Tango")

DOWELL: It was at once a parody of Latin torch songs and a passionate example of one. That ability to transform and preserve classic structures has endeared Anderson to such musicians as Leonard Slatkin.

Mr. SLATKIN: You know, I've always thought of this music as being as sophisticated as any of the so-called big names that we do; it's just that he did it in miniature. So is it any different when a short Leroy Anderson piece that parodies or tries to pay homage to a dance form like the saraband, is that any different, really, than Mozart and would poke fun at the form, or Brahms, or Schubert, or Mahler? I don't think so.

(Soundbite of "Saraband")

DOWELL: "Saraband" is Latkin's favorite.

Mr. SLATKIN: Because it embodies what he tried to do, and that was to create a work that took some structure from the past that made it relevant for the audience listening at the time.

(Soundbite of "Saraband")

Mr. SLATKIN: I mean it starts off as it could be a little bit of Bach, could be something French, then there's a slight jazz rhythm that goes on near the end, so he's playing about with it. He's really having a good time with it.

DOWELL: And Leroy Anderson did it all in less than three-and-a-half minutes, which certainly plays to the attention span of today's busy consumer.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(Soundbite of "Sandpaper Ballet")

SEABROOK: And this is Leroy Anderson's "Sandpaper Ballet." You can hear Leonard Slatkin conduct some of Anderson's best loved pieces at the music section of our website. That's npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Sandpaper Ballet")

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